A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 3 Part 6

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Romans 16:17 and 18

As fellowship questions grew increasingly contentious, the proper interpretation and application of Romans 16:17 and 18 came under greater debate. Missouri’s Brief Statement had applied the passage to all heterodox Christians, including non-Synodical Conference Lutherans, even over such nonfundamental doctrines as millennialism, election, and conversion.

footnote: Missouri’s citation of the passage against non-Synodical Conference Lutherans provoked spirited rejoinder from some of those Lutherans. Edward Schramm, editor of the Lutheran Standard, asked, “How in the name of common sense and of truth and of Jesus Christ, who bids us love another, can any group of intelligent, God-fearing Christians take a passage that warns against fellowship with idolaters and lying deceivers and apply it to fellow believers in Christ, indeed, to fellow Lutherans?” Schramm wished Missouri would “quit prostituting the Word of God to bolster up their scholastic argumentation,” adding, “It’s that kind of manhandling of the Word of God that gets a church body the unlovely separatism that marks the Wisconsin Synod—a separatism which many in the Missouri Synod now recognize in the Wisconsin Synod, but which Missouri seems unable to recognize in itself.” end footnote

E. W. A. Koehler’s monograph Romans 16:17 through 20 offered a defense of Missouri’s traditional interpretation. Paul told us “to mark those who, by teaching what is not in agreement with the doctrines of the Bible, are causing divisions and offenses in the church.” We must avoid them because “they are not serving our Lord Jesus Christ, but themselves.” Koehler took belly in verse 18 to refer to “the mental faculties, [one’s] mind and heart.” False teachings “do not stem from the words of Christ” but proceed “from the errorists’ own mind and heart.” Every errorist, whether intending to deceive or not, “uses good words and plausible arguments to prove his point.” Regardless of his intentions “we should avoid him.”

Adolph Brux had charged that the passages Missouri employed to require separation from Christians of other denominations actually referred “to persons who either never were Christians, or, having been believers, have suffered shipwreck in the faith, and therefore can no longer be called Christians.” Missouri’s present understanding of verse 17, referring to “every and any minute deviation in Christian doctrine on the part of erring Christians,” was “not warranted by the context, but is in violation of it.” It was “plain from verse 18 that the causers of divisions and offenses” were not regarded by Paul as Christians at all and were to be avoided “for their decidedly dishonest and anti-Christian character.” Brux assumed the “causers of divisions and offenses” were Judaizers, although he made no specific attempt to demonstrate that from the text. He further assumed those causing the “offenses” were fully aware of the deadly nature of their actions, acting purposefully, calculatedly, and consciously. Because they were people who “make it their business to create divisions and set traps,” they “cannot be regarded as Christians.” Is this passage rightly applied to other church bodies that “stand on the same foundation, Christ, but differ in some doctrines that do not overthrow the foundation”?

In an essay accompanying point 5 of A Statement, in Speaking the Truth in Love, the essayist argued for an alternate understanding of verse 17: “Those who, contrary to the teaching which you have learned, are creating divisions and offenses.” Thus, not the men’s doctrines but their divisive and contentious behavior contradicted the teaching the Romans had learned. Paul would then not have been referring to weak Christians but to “disturbers” who “are creating notorious divisions” by “hypocritical smoothness and flattering speech.” Because “the application of the passage requires that we do not give it a narrower or a broader meaning than it originally had in the situation for which it was intended,” the passage cannot be applied “indiscriminately to the situation within the Lutheran Church today.” While there may be some in Lutheran and other churches to whom the passage applies, the essayist was “not personally acquainted with them, for they are not Christians,” but people “intent on fomenting strife in order that they may indulge in good living.”

At the direction of the 1947 synodical convention, Behnken submitted to pastors and congregations study materials on the questions raised concerning the passage and its meaning. The study document, entitled Exegesis on Romans 16:17 and following, was distributed with an attached letter on May 11, 1950. Its author considered the warning of verse 17 general and inclusive, applicable to anyone causing doctrinal divisions or offenses. Those “who served their own bellies” were thought to be gluttons or guilty of sensual sins. The passage did not provide enough information for later exegetes to determine precisely the persons against whom Paul sounded this warning. The essayist concluded that “the interpretation traditional in our circles is essentially sound.”

The essayist charged that the Missouri Synod tended to rely too heavily on this single passage in its discussion of fellowship. “The whole of that teaching should be brought to bear on any given situation.” The traditional understanding of the passage “does not, by any means, mean an easy way out for the Church.” Arguing against a quick, unthinking separation from all who did not immediately agree with every synodical statement, the essayist suggested that the warning of Romans chapter 16 “both in its breadth and in its severity lays upon the Church a solemn obligation which can be met only by long, intensive, and loving theological work.” The Church “should not be startled to find that the decision on error is not always easy or the question of fellowship always simple.” The passage “is to be applied to ourselves, too, in constant self-scrutiny and self-judgment.” Any church that “deems itself above the possibility of belly service is already dangerously close to serving its belly.”

Only application?

In 1905, Friederich Bente had written that Ohioans and Missourians “cannot appear jointly in prayer before the throne of God’s mercy” because “their teachings are as far apart as the earth’s poles.” Bente had further insisted that “it follows logically” that “if we [Missourians] unite with the Ohioans in prayer, we must also invite them to our altars and bring them to our pulpits.” By 1949, however, Henry Wind presented Bente’s position as though it were a minority viewpoint:

There are those who sincerely believe that prayer-fellowship without complete unity in every doctrine, even in those teachings which do not touch the essential truths concerning man’s sin and God’s grace in Christ Jesus, is contrary to specific teachings of God’s Word. When therefore they refuse to practice prayer-fellowship with Lutherans not in full doctrinal agreement with them, they are doing so for reasons of conscience. Right or wrong, for these Lutherans the problem constitutes a formidable obstacle which certainly must be removed before progress toward Lutheran unity can be hoped for.

footnote: That Wind regarded this as a minority viewpoint is evident by the longer, more positive summary he offered of those who supported prayer-fellowship without complete doctrinal agreement. end footnote

In “The Theology of Fellowship” in 1960, Missouri theologians wrote, “The matter of joint prayer between Christians not in the same confessional-organizational fellowship cannot be determined by a flat universal rule.” It would be “a dangerous oversimplification to say that any one of the manifestations of fellowship, such as joint prayer, always necessarily presupposes and involves every other manifestation, such as pulpit and altar fellowship.”

This chapter has traced the tumultuous journey the Missouri Synod made from the Brief Statement to the Brux case to the 1944 resolution on prayer fellowship to A Statement of the 44.

In view of that history, it seems astonishing—and more than a bit disingenuous—that John Behnken could assert, as he did in 1964, that the differences between the synods lay “almost entirely in the area of practice rather than doctrine, in the application of Scriptural principles rather than in the principles themselves.”

footnote: Behnken’s statement is all the more remarkable in view of Otto Geiseman’s remarks in the American Lutheran less than a year later: “This change in our theology of fellowship became more and more pronounced with the passing of the decades. Some men of our synod quite apparently saw, many years ago, how erroneous views on the subject of Christian fellowship were tightening their grip on our synod, its teachings and its practices.” Geiseman referred to the 1920s through the 1950s, when “a great rash of spurious exegetical studies” were done, in which “basic principles of interpretation were ignored,” all to “undergird a legalistic theology of fellowship based on a growing tradition and on human deductions.” Missouri’s 1962 convention delegates at Cleveland “quickly caught the difference between a legalistic approach to the problems of fellowship based on traditions and human deductions and the simple evangelistic scriptural approach of Christian love.” Whether or not one agrees with Geiseman’s characterization of Missouri’s history, it is clear Geiseman believed that what occurred in the synod was a change in its fellowship doctrine, not merely its practice of fellowship. end footnote

This appraisal was repeated by George Gude in 1986, who concluded that the intersynodical dispute “was over application and practice rather than a denial of doctrine.”Missouri’s distinction between prayer fellowship and joint prayer was something that had “not been said before.” Yet Gude insisted this “was not a new position. . . .

When the Norwegian and Wisconsin Synods agreed in certain specific, past instances that these prayers at the time of doctrinal discussion had been proper, in effect they were allowing in practice what the Missouri Synod was trying to allow in theory. Therefore, when the Missouri Synod stated that prayer is appropriate in certain circumstances between those seeking doctrinal unity, since it could point to what had been the practice in the past, it hardly stands to reason that this could be construed as a new position. If anything, it is a change back to their original practice.

footnote: Gude cited an interview with Wisconsin seminary professors Edward Fredrich and Martin O. Westerhaus, July 17, 1985, who “did not fully agree with this assessment,” but “viewed this distinction as a doctrinal change in the sense that by formalizing an exception to the practice of prayer fellowship, in effect this becomes a doctrinal change.” end footnote

During the 1950s, the Wisconsin Synod repeated and clarified its teaching that weak Christians are to be dealt with in patience and love until they reveal themselves as “persistent errorists.” In 1954, a Wisconsin author granted that “there are those Christians who may be caught in an error, not willingly, but because their understanding of Scripture is insufficient,” and he urged that praying with such Christians “may well be in place and God pleasing” so that “God will help [them] to grow in knowledge and strength.” But the Wisconsin Synod found it impossible to regard an entire church body as a “weak brother.” To continue offering joint prayer with a synod after it had revealed itself to be a persistently erring church body was viewed by Wisconsin as a change in understanding of the doctrine of church fellowship itself, not merely a change of application in doubtful or difficult circumstances.

Also frustrating at the time and perplexing a half century later was Missouri’s repeated insistence that nothing had changed. Already in 1943, O. H. Pannkoke was quoted as saying that the Missouri Synod had “undergone a radical change.” The American Lutheran remarked in 1949 on how formerly it had been a “favorite indoor sport,” wherever Lutherans assembled, “to tell jokes about the isolationist tendencies of the ‘Missouri brethren.’” Missouri pastors or professors offering any ecclesiastical suggestions were “twitted unmercifully by those who feign stunned astonishment that a Missourian would dare to come out from behind the Iron Curtain,” and toastmasters could be expected to tell stories demonstrating “the unbelievable isolationism of some Missouri brother.” To the great relief of an American Lutheran writer, all that was changing. Audiences increasingly considered such jokes more ridiculous than true because “the real rank and file of the great body which is truly The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is not ‘like that.’ . . .

Recent events force every Lutheran in America to admit that calling the Missouri Synod “isolationist” today is a joke. Doctor Geiseman, in his While It Is Day column in the May 1949 issue of this magazine, gave many detailed examples of how Missouri is ready at any time and at any place to sit down and discuss with any person in the best American tradition all points at issue in American Lutheranism. We believe that Dr. Geiseman also proved rather conclusively that Missouri has been willing to cooperate with other groups in general fields not only when called upon, but in many instances it has been Missouri which has taken the initiative.

footnote: If the tone and content of the article did not signal a transformation in Missouri’s practice and personality, the editor’s note appended to the end of it did: “The position taken in the above editorials is predicated upon the assumption that all free conferences be opened with prayer. Without the blessing of God all plans for Lutheran unity must remain futile. Therefore the American Lutheran cannot support any plan which does not include the asking of Divine guidance and blessings.” end footnote

Oddly, perhaps, Wisconsin found validation of its charge in the favorable impressions other Lutheran bodies voiced at Missouri changes. The Lutheran Outlook of the American Lutheran Conference likened Missouri to “a powerful ship surging forward—but anchored fast.” The forward surge was apparent in Missouri’s increased willingness to cooperate with the National Council bodies and in its acceptance of a joint Missouri-ALC doctrinal statement. Missouri’s chief anchor was the Wisconsin Synod.

Elson Ruff, editor of the United Lutheran Church of America Lutheran, called it “the pleasantest thing in our church life” that Missouri was demonstrating a “gradual increase of friendliness” toward other Lutheran bodies. Some Missourians, perhaps, still “duck across the street to avoid saying ‘Good Morning’ to the United Lutheran Church pastor,” but it was becoming more common for Missourians “to attend pastoral association meetings with other Lutherans” and even “unite with neighboring congregations in special services.”

Edmund Reim called it “a matter of strong conviction” in Wisconsin that the position it sought to defend and uphold was that of the Synodical Conference, and that “it is therefore not we but Missouri which has changed.” The Lutheran Outlook was “obviously not partial to our cause,” Reim admitted, yet it charged Missouri, not Wisconsin, with “moving, or desiring to move” in the direction of the National Lutheran Commission and the American Lutheran Church. The Lutheran, even less partial to Wisconsin, also saw “a very pronounced change” in Missouri and regarded Wisconsin “as a symbol of the past. . . .

Now there is no virtue in holding fast to a position simply because it has acquired the halo of age and tradition. A position is worth holding only if it is right. We believe that the old doctrinal position of the Synodical Conference was right. And we further believe that the practice of the Synodical Conference was soundly Scriptural, especially in the matter of church fellowship. Therefore we further believe and teach that both this doctrine and this practice are still right today.

As Wisconsin’s Immanuel Frey saw it, the Missouri Synod had “departed from its former position” on fellowship and in its place had “taken a stand very similar to that which the Iowa Synod held and which the American Lutheran Church still holds.” Missouri’s withholding of prayer fellowship from other Lutherans “in the olden days” could be extensively documented. Even Missouri’s American Lutheran acknowledged that prayer fellowship was an issue “on which the understanding and viewpoint of a large number of [its] pastors has changed appreciably in recent years.” Such an admission, Frey insisted, was “at least commendable candor.”

End Chapter 3