A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 4 Part 3

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There was “a Missouri with which we would be glad to stand shoulder to shoulder,” Reim wrote, the Missouri “trying manfully to counteract the modern trend in its own midst,” the Missouri “of Walther, of Stoeckhardt, of Pieper, which we have known in the past.” But the new Missouri was “very much in the public eye” and knew “how to make itself heard,” while it was now “obscuring the line of demarcation between the Synodical Conference and other Lutheran bodies.” This was “a different Missouri, one with which we could not make common cause, but which we would emphatically have to contradict.”

The Northwestern Lutheran in 1949 reported on a celebratory worship service at Milwaukee’s downtown auditorium, marking the synod’s 100th anniversary, attended by more than seven thousand worshipers. But this “pleasant experience” was clearly meant for members only. Milwaukee area congregations canceled their regularly scheduled Sunday morning services, and the worship was conducted “within the confines of our own synod churches.” William Schaefer emphasized that “nothing was done” to publicize the event beyond the synod’s borders. “There was no advertising in the newspapers of the city, no screaming headlines, no pictures of the great and near great that would participate, nothing of all that.” Worship was conducted “quietly” and “a churchly decorum was manifested by all who attended.” The service was “orderly and serious,” “simple,” “sober and dignified.” It featured “no praising of the men who blazed the trail for our synod, it was no harangue on the wickedness of the world, no indictment of the existing evils, no recounting of the great power of our enemies.” The five-hundred–voice choir “made no attempt at rendering something to awe the congregation, rather it sang two simple compositions and sang them beautifully.” All this “certainly ought to teach us one thing: that with the right appeal and without making great splurges in public, Christians can be interested in a service that should serve no other purpose than to worship God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Whatever Schaefer’s intentions, the American Lutheran reprinted the article in full and charged that “criticisms in the article, implied and otherwise, directed at we know not whom,” merited comment. Quoting Jeremiah’s injunction to “publish and not conceal” (Jeremiah 50:2)and the encouragement of Jesus “What ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops,” (Matthew 10:27) the American Lutheran responded:

We have often wondered why the Wisconsin Synod, after 100 years of work in the United States, should have a membership of 285,000, and the Missouri Synod, after a similar period, 1,600,000. Perhaps this is the answer.

There is no virtue in size. Nor is there a particular virtue in smallness. There certainly is no virtue in smallness if we put a halo around that concept, and even, God forbid, point the finger at others not so virtuously small.

In all kindliness and Christian charity, we suggest to our Wisconsin Synod brethren in Milwaukee, who evidently were responsible for this undertaking, that the next time they let people know, before and after, what is going on, through the usual channels employed in these days to circulate information. It might have been valuable in this case to the numbers of visitors who must have appeared at Wisconsin Synod churches that morning without prior knowledge that they would be closed.

Later in 1949, the American Lutheran cited Wisconsin professor Max Lehninger’s remarks in a summer convention essay that it was “no secret” that some Missourians looked favorably on the American Lutheran Church invitation to church union. Incidents reported in the secular press showed “Missouri men in actual fellowship with Lutherans from whom Missouri has been separated for doctrinal reasons for a period of fifty to seventy-five years and longer.” Wisconsin protests against such practices were “seemingly in vain.” Lehninger gave two reasons why Wisconsin editors and professors declined invitations to intersynodical conferences: (1) they feared their acceptance would have been misinterpreted “as signifying that former doctrinal differences are not in existence anymore,” and (2) they were concerned such “friendly” gatherings “might tend to dull their testimony and to dim their eyes of perception against the lurking danger of a compromise.

The promoters of these meetings want to serve the cause of Christ thereby; of this there can be no doubt. But do they? The press reports are usually full of praise for the cordiality of the participants, of the brotherly spirit in which the meetings were conducted. The probable effect such reports make on our brethren with whom we are one in confession will be that they are not strengthened but weakened in their convictions regarding pure doc- trine on one side and false doctrine on the other.

This, the American Lutheran countered, was “a perfect example of the sin of separatism, a sin certainly no less deadly and destructive of true unity than the sin of ‘unionism.’” The marks of the sin of separatism—“an unyielding insistence” on one’s viewpoint as “the only scriptural position” down to the most minute detail, “unsparing denunciation” of any who differed with the single approved position, refusal even to meet with any who held differing views—all were evident in Lehninger’s defense. “We cannot understand this attitude of our Wisconsin brethren. We are concerned about them and their seemingly growing spirit of separatism.”

footnote: Reim acknowledged that “separatism is indeed a sin” and that “just at such times as when we are taking a stand against unionism we are in particular danger of falling into the opposite extreme.” But Reim insisted that “God’s Word itself calls for separation” when circumstances “make a dangerous fraternizing out of something which is advocated as a mere friendly get-together.” end footnote

In 1950, the American Lutheran charged that a Northwestern Lutheran editorial by Paul Kretzmann, a former St. Louis professor who had left the Missouri Synod, “provides an illuminating confusion of thought and terminology which may explain why the Missouri Synod has little regard for this type of argumentation.” Rejecting Kretzmann’s distinction between a schismatic and a separatist, the editor concurred with Kretzmann that “schism or separation without a just cause” was “an abomination” before God. “Starting out with that premise, we believe that there is no room within the Missouri Synod for the spirit of the editorial in the Northwestern Lutheran.”

footnote: In the very next editorial, criticizing an item from The Lutheran, the magazine of the United Lutheran Church of America, the American Lutheran suggested that “the two wings of Lutheranism” both used “journalistic tricks to put their ideas across.” The editor of The Lutheran displayed “his addiction to this practice which puts him in a class with the Northwestern Lutheran” when he saw only one side of an issue and portrayed it as the only side. end footnote

Reacting to newspaper reports of an acrimonious meeting in Milwaukee between Missouri and Wisconsin representatives regarding the entanglement of the Boy Scout issue in proposed plans to construct a new joint Lutheran high school, the American Lutheran wrote:

It seems to us that our brethren in the Wisconsin Synod could certainly have handled this in a far more charitable and brotherly manner than these clippings indicate. There was no reason for permitting this controversy to be dragged into the fierce light of publicity and holding up the entire Lutheran Church to ridicule from those outside the walls of our communion who do not know what the shooting is all about. . . . The situation in Milwaukee is a crying shame and disgrace, and we place the blame for the present situation directly on the shoulders of our brethren of the Wisconsin Synod who, it seems to us, have violated the laws of charity and brotherliness.

footnote: Since 1947, considerable debate centered on the future of the Lutheran high school in Milwaukee. Although expanded facilities were desperately needed, doubts regarding the synods’ future unity, if not openly discussed, remained on everyone’s minds. The reluctance of Wisconsin Synod congregations to commit to a costly building project while inter-synodical differences persisted helped to create what principal E. H. Buerger called “a most unhappy and painful situation” within the joint high school conference. “After numerous heart-trying discussions arriving at no solution of the problem,” Missouri congregations recommended that the joint high school conference be divided into two separate associations. “It was difficult for many in the Missouri Synod and especially also in the Wisconsin Synod to sever this bond of friendship and brotherly cooperation,” but no other solution seemed suitable.

The decision to create separate associations and to build two high schools was in Edmund Reim’s view “the only practical choice” available. “If it should prove impossible to preserve our Synodical Conference intact, if the tragedy of a break should actually come to pass, it will be fortunate if among the many subsequent problems there will not be this one of untangling the affairs of a newly enlarged joint school.” Reim rejected the charge that the high school decision would somehow cause the two synods to split: “As before, so now, these matters still await the upcoming convention of the Synodical Conference. Being issues that are before the synods, they remain for the synods to decide.” end footnote

A May 1951 editorial in the Milwaukee Lutheran, an intersynodical laymen’s magazine, criticized what it called “wooden shoe” Lutheranism. Pressed for a definition, the Milwaukee Lutheran said wooden shoe Lutheranism was practiced by “those Missouri Synod churches (although the characteristics seemed to identify many Wisconsin churches as well) that

insist on preaching and teaching that Scouting is contrary to the church’s doctrine. . . . Those who oppose the use of radio and television for the broadcasting of church services . . . those who condemn the use of advertising for church events, and disdain newspaper publicity for church functions . . . those who insist that the choir processional is showmanship unbecoming to the church and robed choirs are not to be . . . those who condemn the chaplaincy. . . . Such thinking, which prevails in Milwaukee to a larger degree than in any other city of its size in the country, defines the term.

Reporting on a proposed merger of the American Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Norwegian), and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (Danish) in 1953, the American Lutheran noted that the Wisconsin and Norwegian synods “quite naturally have expressed hostility to the proposed arrangement.” After Missouri’s 1953 convention, the American Lutheran maintained that it could never recall hearing an official sister synod representative accuse the Missouri Synod “at such great length and so vehemently” of being “out of step with the church body that he represented.” Wisconsin demands that Missouri renounce its position on Boy Scouts, withdraw its chaplains from the armed forces, reverse its acceptance of joint prayer, and suspend discussions with the American Lutheran Church were urged so strongly by Wisconsin’s representative to Missouri’s convention that the Wisconsin official “felt compelled to assert repeatedly that his remarks did not constitute a ‘threat’ [presumably that Wisconsin would withdraw from the Synodical Conference].”

Also reflecting on Missouri’s 1953 convention, Otto Geiseman suggested that attacks by “some of its own sister churches” have caused “a small number of individuals” within the Missouri Synod “to join in the attack.” Missouri “listened with considerable patience” but ultimately “clung to the spirit of biblical Lutheranism.” While some in the church “have tried to develop doctrine by processes of derivation and deduction,” Missouri “was not ready to give up its position on the principle ‘The Scriptures Alone.’ ”

Some of the observations Geiseman offered on the intersynodical dispute, with the appearance of fairness and dispassionate reflection, may have been received by Wisconsin men as scarcely concealed criticism and condescension. In October 1953, Geiseman wrote:

We should remember that there are many fine evangelical pastors within the Wisconsin Synod who can hardly be happy or proud of some of the positions held and attitudes manifested by some men within their own synod. Perhaps it would be better if we allowed these men to wield the sword of the Word for the cause of historical Lutheranism. . . .

It seems to me that the Wisconsin Synod must still pass through the period of transition through which our people began to pass during and immediately after the first world war. Even where its churches have been located in urban communities it does not seem to have become conscious in any lively and aggressive way, generally speaking, of the unchurched, non-Lutheran elements about it. It has remained in the position of social isolation in which our synod found itself but a few decades ago.

. . . The temptation . . . lies near to elevate the entire problem into one of theological significance and to make it appear as though the old ways and the old methods were divine and the new ways and the new methods demonic.

Wisconsin’s criticisms demonstrated that “historical and organizational considerations play a very large part” in intersynodical tensions. “It by no stretch of the imagination can honestly and logically be regarded as a matter of theology.” Taking issue with the tone and content of Wisconsin’s 1953 and 1954 series of tracts, Geiseman wrote, “Our heart goes out to individuals who have become lost in such an emotional fog as to produce this type of theological criticism under the illusion that this is a service to God and to His church.” Those in the Wisconsin Synod “to whom the Spirit of God gives a fuller measure of light have a prior obligation to help their church body and they also have by far the better opportunity of working with success.”

Sometimes it was impossible to determine who some or some Lutherans or they were, to whom Geiseman and others referred. But it is understandable that Wisconsin Synod readers might have assumed they were the ones being obliquely criticized.

There are some Lutherans who are absolutely sure that they can do no better than to bury the talent or the pound which has been entrusted to them. They think of the Lord of the Church as someone who is exceedingly severe, and that He will be much angered if they should even so much as talk about theology with people who do not possess the truths of God in the same rich and full measure in which they think they possess them. These Lutherans are obviously elevating their own fears, their attitudes of aloofness and provincialism, into a divine dogma. They don’t want to say: “We’re afraid!” so they say “God forbids!”

To the brink of a break

Understandably, when representatives of the disagreeing synods met at Synodical Conference conventions, tensions arose.

footnote: Prior to the 1952 Synodical Conference convention at St. Paul, MN, Edmund Reim explained that the Synodical Conference was “only an advisory body,” not a “super-synod.” It was not in a position to dictate a solution to the problems between conference members or enforce final decisions. Rather than regarding this as a flaw in the organization, “this is precisely as the founders planned it.” Member synods “joined themselves together as brethren, firmly resolved that the highest authority rest only in the Word of God. And that is the only basis” on which the conference could still function. end footnote

In his opening address to the 1946 convention, President E. Benjamin Schlueter acknowledged that “confusion and strife” had entered the conference, threatening to “undermine its stability.” In 1950, the Norwegian Synod’s S. C. Ylvisaker, substituting for Schlueter, delivered a vigorous opening sermon in which he issued stinging rebukes of unionism, joint prayer, and disagreements over church and ministry, the chaplaincy, and Scouting. “These difficulties are real, and they dare not be put aside as if they do not belong within the realm of a doctrinal debate.” Ylvisaker asked, “Will you let the Word decide and let the Word govern, or must convenience, sloth, emotions, reason, prevail to the further loss” of God’s precious gifts to the Conference?

Following Ylvisaker’s address as published in the Synodical Conference Proceedings is the note:

Dr. Ylvisaker declared before the convention that the above address had not been submitted to the other officials of the Synodical Conference for approval, but that it presented his individual concerns. On recommendation by the standing Committee on Intersynodical Relations the convention resolved to attach the following statement to the Presidential Address: “Missouri Synod members of the Committee on Intersynodical Relations are not in agreement with some of the opinions in the Presidential Address.”

footnote: Edward Fredrich recalled, “Those at Fort Wayne for that convention in 1950 will never forget the man and the address.” end footnote

Synodical Conference conventions at Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1950 and the Twin Cities in 1952 “reached new lows in strife,” as conference sessions degenerated into bitterly divided reports and bloc voting. One Wisconsin pastor remembered John Brenner “being treated shabbily on the floor of the convention and being hooted down when he tried to bring some brotherly admonition to Missouri.”

Wisconsin delegates to the 1952 Synodical Conference convention declared themselves in statu confessionis (a state of protesting fellowship) with the Missouri Synod. “We suddenly find ourselves confronted with a situation wherein nothing is as it formerly was,” Frederic Blume explained. “The brother with whom we have walked in peace, shoulder to shoulder, has broken rank.” Wisconsin felt an obligation to point out publicly Missouri’s “defection from rank,” yet “we are to continue our efforts to make that brother see himself as we see him,” not by regarding or treating Missouri as an enemy “but by continuing to ‘admonish’ him as that which he still is, our brother.” The next summer, Wisconsin’s synodical convention approved the action, making the in statu confessionis its own.

End Chapter 4 Part 3