A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 4 Part 1

Permission granted for use by the visually impaired audience only on listen.wels.net.

“A Sterner Kind of Admonition and Love”

On August 6, 1945, the Milwaukee Journal reported that “an atomic bomb, hailed as the most terrible destructive force in history and the greatest achievement of organized science” was loosed by American B-29 bombers on Japan. The city of Hiroshima was covered with “an impenetrable cloud of dust and smoke” by a weapon “containing more power than 20,000 tons of TNT and producing more than 2,000 times the blast of the most powerful bomb” ever previously dropped on any target. President Harry Truman warned grimly that if Japan continued its refusal to surrender, it could expect “a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Two days later Tokyo radio acknowledged that “practically all living things” in Hiroshima “were literally seared to death by the tremendous heat and pressure” of the blast.

As America’s victory over Japan grew imminent, Milwaukee civil officials announced that a portion of the city’s downtown area would be fenced off for a V-J day “playground.” Churches were to leave their doors open for prayer, but retail stores, banks, and drug stores would be asked to close. Milwaukee’s fire and police chiefs admitted their plans had been formulated “anticipating that there will be no restraining the people.” By the next day, the executive committee of Milwaukee County’s Council of Defense recommended, “Let ’er go, Milwaukee,” but “be reasonable in your celebrating the war’s end, and don’t tear down the county.” Not surprisingly, Tony Santz, secretary of the Wisconsin Tavern Keeper’s Association, announced that the city’s taverns would remain open.

That same day Japan announced it was prepared to surrender under the Potsdam declaration, and on August 14, a Tuesday, the Journal headline read, “War Ended!”

The final day of the Wisconsin Synod’s biennial synodical con- vention, held in New Ulm, Minnesota, also took place on August 6, 1945. Though the peaceful convention setting at Dr. Martin Luther College was far removed from the Pacific theater of the world war, Wisconsin Synod president John Brenner noted that the “political, economic, and social upheaval” of the war had impacted religious thought and life.

Religious leaders are alarmed over the increasing liberalism in doctrine and morals and the outspoken antagonism to the church, or, as it is often put, to organized religion, and are urging a united front of all churches against the forces of evil. On the other hand they are looking forward with eager hopes to what they call “tremendous opportunities” and are girding themselves to meet the challenge of the post-war days.

Brenner urged synod members to be “prayerfully careful,” however, that theirs would not become “a zeal that is not according to knowledge.” He warned that “being energetically active is not always an acceptable service to the Lord that furthers His purpose for His Church.”

Brenner recognized that the Wisconsin Synod was being drawn more and more into a civil war that had erupted in the Missouri Synod and was spilling over to the other member synods of the Synodical Conference. Disagreements over participation in the military chaplaincy program and acceptance of Scouting had found a common denominator in the practice and understanding of church fellowship, particularly prayer fellowship. The convention’s floor committee on church union reported that debate centered on whether altar and pulpit fellowship between Missouri and the ALC could be established “now or later without compromising the truth of God’s inspired Word.” The church union question had grown more difficult, the committee reported, “because of a number of incidents which anticipate a union between the Missouri Synod and the American Lutheran Church which does not yet exist.”

As evidence mounted that the Missouri Synod was undergo- ing changes in its understanding and practice of church fellowship, the Wisconsin Synod was compelled to further define and defend its own fellowship teaching during the next two decades. Arthur Voss admitted, “While our pastors generally are familiar with church union matters, the laymen may not be too well informed.” The steps the Wisconsin Synod took beginning in 1945 led to the declaration in 1960 that an impasse had been reached between the two synods regarding fellowship. Wisconsin’s decision to sever fellowship relations with Missouri came the next year.

Clarifying prayer fellowship

Before the early 1940s, Wisconsin’s official publications contained almost no presentations or discussions of prayer fellowship. Criticisms of the American Lutheran Church centered on the old Ohio and Iowa synods’ errors regarding election, conversion, and open questions. Criticisms of the United Lutheran Church of America were directed primarily against perceived modernism tolerated or endorsed by that body. Since the Missouri Synod had entered ongoing union discussions with the American Lutheran Church, however, and since it had become increasingly clear that some in Missouri “have held unionistic services, have conducted joint prayers, have conducted joint church work, and have united in other brotherly associations with its members,” Wisconsin was compelled to address more directly the question of prayer among those not agreed in doctrine.

John P. Meyer’s 1947 Northwestern Lutheran article “Prayer Fellowship” presented mostly a defense of the assertion that prayer must be offered only in Jesus’ name. Members of lodges and other fraternal organizations formulated their prayers to appear nonsectarian, seeking to avoid offending certain members by removing every reference to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, or the Redeemer. “Can a Christian join such prayers?” Meyer asked. “The question answers itself. It would violate a Christian’s most sacred faith. He cannot but abhor and shun it.”

Similarly, Henry Koch, in “Joint Prayer at Public Meetings” in 1948, citing Matthew 18:19,20, wrote that joint prayer can occur “only where two or more are agreed as to what they are praying for.” There can be “no agreement in prayer among those who are disagreed as to their various religions.” Thus “only Christians can pray together as we do in public worship.” Then Koch narrowed the focus: “This also excludes prayer fellowship with other Christian denominations as well as among conservative and liberal Lutherans and Lutheran church bodies.” Though we should pray privately for them “to see the error of their ways,” we can “only pray with them after a truly scriptural agreement between them and us has been reached.”

footnote: Edmund Reim acknowledged that “working for true unity is a slow and toilsome process, with many setbacks and disappointments” while “efforts at outward union promise quick and dazzling results.” end footnote

The most extensive Wisconsin treatment of prayer fellowship, which drew decidedly clearer lines between the two synods in both doctrine and practice, came from Meyer in a six-part series, “Prayer Fellowship,” extending from July 1949 through October 1950 in the Quartalschrift. Joint prayer “presupposes a common faith, believing in the same God and approaching him on the same premises,” and so prayer fellowship “presupposes church fellowship, established by a common confession of a common faith.” Wherever church fellowship is impossible because no common faith exists, “there also joint prayer will be impossible because there is no common approach to God.” Joint prayer conducted in spite of ongoing disunity in faith and confession “becomes a sham, simulating a harmony that does not exist.”

footnote: See also Gervasius W. Fischer, “Prayer fellowship with those who have not the truth is a sham love, just as opening a meeting with prayer to ‘impress upon those present the solemnity of the meeting’ is blasphemy.” end footnote

Prayer fellowship always “stands in close relation to the unity of the Church, either strengthening that unity as a heartfelt expression of it, or by simulating a unity that does not exist.” Since prayer is a fruit of faith, joint prayer must be a fruit of joint faith. If one person “bases his prayer on the statements and promises of God” but the other rejects “even the least important or seemingly unimportant truth of God,” such joint prayer would not be “harmonious” to the ears of God.

Neither sin nor weakness of faith disrupts the unity of the church, because the church is composed of “convalescents, under the care of the Great Physician” and because all sins have been washed away in the blood of Jesus. “But a refusal to accept the testimony of the Church, given in the name and spirit of Jesus,” does disrupt the church’s unity. “If we in any way supplement the Word of God with our own wisdom”—altering even nonfundamental doctrines “to suit our own taste” or considering them not divisive to church fellowship—the unity of the faith is also disrupted.

There are some who make a distinction between church fellowship as it appears in the form of pulpit and altar fel- lowship, on the one hand, and prayer fellowship, on the other. They will concede that a joint Communion or a joint service is out of the question under certain circumstances; they will condemn them as unionistic; but they will con- tend that joint prayer under virtually the same circum- stances may be harmless, yes, God-pleasing, because they say, joint prayer is not co-extensive with church fellow- ship. Jesus does not make such a distinction.

Meyer also rejected Missouri’s differentiation between “an occasional joint prayer” and “regular prayer fellowship,” asking: “Can the number of times, or the habitual performing of an act, affect its ethical nature? Can something be God-pleasing when committed only occasionally, and become an offense to God when repeated regularly?”

Meyer granted that “we are now assuming ordinary circumstances.” In exceptional cases, when “the separation of a different confession has fallen” because “there are just you and the dying person before the face of God,” a person may “send a prayer up to God for him” and also “ask him to join you in a prayer committing his spirit into the hand of God. Such a case would not constitute unionism because “God Himself removed all thought of confessional differences by the accident which brought you and the dying man face to face.” Such exceptional cases, however, should not be employed to change the principle regarding regular relations.

Every scriptural admonition against departing from the Word of God also warns against practicing joint prayer with those who depart from it. “By joining in prayer with a person who openly deviates from the Word of God, we would make ourselves partak- ers of his error.” Does not such an action demonstrate a deplorable lack of love? “It would be dissimulation, hypocrisy, to connive, or to give the appearance of conniving, at error by joining the errorist in prayer.” If we love the truth and abhor error, “how can we give the impression of indifference by entangling with the errorist in joint prayer?” And how could we hope to win the errorist “if we show such lack of seriousness and of real con- cern for the saving truth?”

footnote: See also Egbert Schaller, “Show us an errorist and we swing into action as exhorters and convincers, if we can; and if we cannot, we suspend judgment concerning the Christianity of the errorist while refusing to fellowship with him.” end footnote

Wisconsin repeated this line of argumentation in Prayer Fel- lowship, Tract 10, published in 1954. The author seemed to go further than Meyer in demonstrating how the Wisconsin stand was to be tempered with a loving concern for weaker Christians:

We know that there are devout children of God in all synods who unfortunately are not yet informed regarding the matters in controversy and are not aware of their involvement in error through membership in a heterodox synod. I may have an American Lutheran Church grandmother who has always manifested a simple, childlike faith in her Lord and Savior, but who nevertheless is unaware of the intersynodical differences and their implications. When I visit her in the privacy of her home, it might be a grave mistake were I to assert the principle of refusing to pray with her under such circumstances. What would the Lord have me do? Should I trouble her simple faith in these matters which are apparently beyond her grasp? Or is it not my plain duty to support her and build up her faith by praying with her and otherwise expressing my own faith. . .

We dare not forget that there are those Christians who may be caught in an error, not willingly, but because their understanding of Scripture is insufficient. They are willing to bow to Scripture, but as yet, through human weakness, do not see clearly how the truth of Scripture necessarily rules out their error. What does God say to us concerning such weak Christians? He tells us: “Him that is weak in the faith, receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations” (Rom. 14:1). Receive, He says, receive such a weak brother and tenderly help him overcome his weakness. ‘Receiving’ such a weak Christian means that praying with him may well be in place and God pleasing, and we trust that God will help him to grow in knowledge and strength.

But Prayer Fellowship also demonstrated that Wisconsin’s “all or nothing” view of fellowship meant that even in private circumstances one was advised not to pray with a family member who persisted in a doctrinal error:

If, however, my cousin is not only aware of the synodical differences, but defends his church’s errors, I cannot pray with him—not even in the privacy of his home. In order to make clear to him that the error he defends destroys the unity of our faith, I must refuse to join him in prayer. In cases of this kind, it matters not how close the other person may be to me as a relative or friend; here the word of Jesus applies: “He that loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37).

Even prayer with a weak Christian friend or relative “could not be done publicly without offense.” And if a weak friend or rel- ative “were to defend the error, even privately, then prayer with him would again be a denial of the Lord.”

footnote: Meyer acknowledged that “a fundamental agreement is all the church can ever hope to attain here on earth.” He warned, however, that “once we have accustomed ourselves to a faulty or an inadequate expression,” it is difficult to “unlearn the particular phrase” and acquire the proper understanding of a particular doctrinal point. Yet “where there is an unconditional willingness to hear what God has to say in His Word, there is fundamental agreement.” end footnote

As Wisconsin sharpened its fellowship formulations, Missouri voiced its objections more distinctly. “We think when we discuss ‘fellowship’ we are discussing a Scriptural concept. That is not necessarily the case,” said a 1952 American Lutheran editorial. Too often “we turn it into a highly technical, narrowly defined Church term. Then we further qualify and refine the term with such noun-modifiers as ‘pulpit,’ ‘altar,’ and ‘prayer,’” until the term “has only tangential contacts with the Scriptural concept.” Common participation in the gospel and the sacraments “makes every baptized user of the Means of Grace a brother and a member of every other baptized user of the Means of Grace, regardless of color, race, or denomination.”

footnote: In an extensive rebuttal, John Buenger charged the American Lutheran editorialist with doing the “greatest injustice to Lutherans who deny church fellowship to those who disagree with them in doctrine.” Buenger contended that the word fellowship (koinonia) “has more than one use in the Scriptures”—sometimes referring to “the spiritual unity which the Holy Ghost works in the hearts of all believers,” other times meaning “the company which a person keeps with other persons or things.” Buenger charged, “It is seen from this what a superficial and arbitrary method it is [on the part of the American Lutheran editorialist] to call one of the two senses in which Scripture uses the word koinonia ‘the Bible term,’ to distinguish from this ‘the Church term,’ and to accuse all those who use the word ‘fellowship’ in a sense which is wholly Biblical of twisting a Bible term into their own sense of the word.” end footnote

Two years later, an American Lutheran writer remained convinced that most differences between the synods could be discussed “in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” and the church bodies could “live together amicably.” But he rejected the rationale of Wisconsin’s Prayer Fellowship tract as “man-made rather than God-made theology” that twisted the intent of the purported scriptural proof, “a preconceived notion with a vengeance, that forces Scripture to deny itself.”

Wisconsin’s reasoning in the pamphlet constituted a misunderstanding of the intent of the passage, wrote Missouri’s Richard Koenig. Citing the Revised Standard Version translation of the passage,“Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:20,). Koenig insisted that the verse spoke about “agreement on the petition which Christians intend to bring,” not their agreement on all questions of doctrine. Both “on the basis of a plain reading of the text” and in view of the “great commentators” on that verse, the verse “has nothing whatever to say on the subject of prerequisites for prayer fellowship.”

Koenig concluded:

It is obvious that the Wisconsin Synod stand on prayer- fellowship differs from that of the Missouri Synod, as expressed in its synodical resolutions and in the parish practice of its pastors and lay people. We venture the opinion that it is at variance, too, with the practice of its pastors and lay people. In themselves, these considerations would be of little consequence, if the Wisconsin Synod position were supported by Scripture. It is most emphatically not supported by the Scripture cited in the recent Wisconsin Synod pamphlet on the subject.

Missouri also had a great concern for doctrinal purity, extending “even to calling the attention of our friends to an excess of zeal which leads them to go beyond the Scriptures in endeavoring to reach a common objective.” The Wisconsin Synod was succumbing to the very “theology of the fathers” Missouri sought to resist. The obligation rested on both synods “of letting Scripture talk to us, rather than of attempting to read our preconceived ideas into the Scriptures.”

In 1955, Missouri president John Behnken defended Missouri’s view that intersynodical meetings may be opened with prayer:

Are not these intersynodical meetings conducted for the purpose of reaching doctrinal unity? Is this not a frank admission that doctrinal unity on the basis of God’s Word and our Lutheran Confessions is necessary before there can be church fellowship? Is this not a frank admission that we are not in church fellowship because our churches are not in doctrinal agreement? . . .

How may doctrinal differences be settled? How can doctrinal unity be achieved? It is not man’s accomplishment. It is not the result of human reasoning. It is not a matter of each yielding a little. . . . The removal of doctrinal differences and the establishment of true unity only the Holy Spirit can accomplish. He does this by means of God’s Word.

Everyone, I am sure, is agreed that we should pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, yes, a rich measure of the Holy Spirit, that true unity be achieved. The question is whether this may be done jointly. Is that kind of joint prayer unionism? Is any truth of God’s Word violated or denied? Is any error condoned? Do the representatives of the church bodies declare that by such joint prayer they are now in church fellowship? . . .

It will be well for all members of our Synod, whether clergy- men or laymen, to consider what Synod’s resolutions say concerning joint prayer. Synod did not say that any and every type of meeting with Lutherans who are not in church fellowship with us may be opened with joint prayer.

End Chapter 4 Part 1