A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 4 Part 4

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Less than a month after the conclusion of the 1953 convention, Wisconsin’s Egbert Schaller, pastor at Nicollet, Minnesota, addressed a long letter to the synod’s Committee on Church Union. Schaller wrote:

I see no honest or God-pleasing way by which we can approach the question of our future course in its relation to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod other than we determine, at the outset, the actual present character of that church body. When we talk about the Missouri Synod, are we talking about an orthodox church body, an erring church body, or a heterodox church body? This must be settled unequivocally, and it cannot be decided by emotional reflections on what the Missouri Synod once was, or meant to us, or by hopeful expressions of what she may one day again mean to us. We are facing, not an idealization, but a real church body standing before us in a framework of its declared position in doctrine and practice.

Schaller defined an orthodox church body as “one which consistently, through official declaration and confession, teaches the Word of God in its truth and purity,” and one in which its practice “is in full accord with that doctrine.” An erring church body has been “overtaken in a fault” by following corrupt leadership “but is taking energetic steps to restore its orthodox character by vigorous discipline.” A heterodox church “persistently, by official pronouncement and resolution, advocates and justifies a corruption or an ambiguous form of any doctrine of God’s Word and tolerates unscriptural practice.”

If Missouri were still an orthodox church, “all the admonition directed against her by our Synod would have to be classified as a disgraceful clamor of words.” But after 15 years of “fruitless appeal for correction and the most patient admonition on our part,” Missouri’s aberrations and offenses had increased, not diminished. It was unrealistic to consider the Missouri Synod an involuntarily erring church body. A church body must be considered heterodox when heterodoxy “has become its fixed characteristic.” Though “the Lord in that body still has thousands of faithful,” it “does not change the verdict upon the church body as such.” Schaller then reviewed the past quarter-century of intersynodical history, offering “compelling evidence that the Missouri Synod, once an orthodox body, has become a heterodox body.”

footnote: Schaller cited various unionistic activities, a false doctrine of prayer fellowship, failure to identify the papacy as the Antichrist, and divergence from the Brief Statement. end footnote

Edmund Reim—seminary professor, member of Wisconsin’s Church Union Committee, chief commentator on church fellowship and intersynodical developments for the Northwestern Lutheran and the Quartalschrift since 1940, highly regarded as a “stalwart leader” and a “kind, deep thinker, never radical”— grew increasingly frustrated over Missouri’s seeming dismissal of Wisconsin’s concerns, coupled with growing uncertainty over the sturdiness of his own synod’s convictions. “The real danger,” Reim wrote in 1954, is that the Wisconsin Synod would “continue to hold [its] convictions—but only in theory,” to “view with alarm, to deplore, to criticize—and let it go at that. . . .

The danger in this period is that we become soft in our purpose, indifferent to the same false teaching and practice that we once sensed very clearly and against which we have earnestly warned. For it is entirely possible that during this interval we consult with flesh and blood and thus get to the point where we not only condone, but—even though not as a synod, yet as individuals— actually participate in the very things which we know to be wrong. end footnote

At the close of a Church Union Committee meeting in May 1955, Reim warned that failure to break with Missouri at Wisconsin’s upcoming convention “would raise grave doubts that Wisconsin can ever take a stand.” The synod “would fail others outside our body who have taken a stand with us and now look to us as the major body still left upholding Scriptural principles.” Not breaking would disappoint some in Missouri and many in the Norwegian Synod. “Not to take a stand this year would mean telling others who already have suffered, [that] they were wrong [and] should go back to Missouri.”

Reim’s concerns escalated on June 24, 1955, when the Norwegian Synod resolved to break fellowship with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod because “to continue the arguments by word and pen will be more likely to further aggravate than to resolve our differences.” Reim praised the Norwegians’ action.

No one can fail to detect the note of sadness in these words over the loss of a precious and historic relation- ship. But also, no one can fail to recognize the sturdy con- viction, the bold determination, the simple sincerity of this confession. The Norwegians are a small group, but they have met a major test magnificently. They have measured up! God grant that we do as well when the time for our decision comes!

Wisconsin delegates to the 1955 convention recognized how momentous this convention was.

footnote: Fredrich wrote that “one would have to go back as far as 1868,” when the fledgling Wisconsin Synod voted to discontinue its membership in the General Council and to sever its financial connection to unionistic German mission societies, “for a synodical convention equal to that of 1955 in significance for the interchurch relations field.” end footnote

Synod president Oscar Naumann, chosen in 1953 to succeed John Brenner, stated that synodical leadership had “reached the conviction” that the Missouri Synod was guilty of causing the divisions and offenses spoken of in Romans 16:17. “For those of us who have been closest to these problems” it seemed “quite definite” that the Wisconsin Synod must now obey the command of the passage to “avoid them.”

Yet Naumann also urged delegates to “implore the Holy Spirit to guide and direct us” as the synod had to decide whether now was the proper time to apply that command or “whether we still have an unpaid debt of love to those whose fellowship we cherished so many years.” The ambivalence Naumann expressed was manifest in the actions Wisconsin conventions took in 1955, 1956, and 1957. Wisconsin’s seeming inability to act decisively aggravated tensions already simmering within the synod and precipitated an internal struggle that led to the departure of dozens of congregations from the synod when it postponed breaking with Missouri.

The Standing Committee on Church Union recommended to the 1955 convention that “with deepest sorrow” the Wisconsin Synod must terminate its fellowship with the Missouri Synod. The Standing Committee was “aware of the tremendous consequences which this contemplated separation entails, for those projects in which our synods have been jointly engaged.” The convention’s floor committee agreed with the Standing Committee’s judgment that Missouri had “created divisions and offenses by its official resolutions, policies and practices.” Yet it felt “constrained” to offer a resolution that action be delayed until a recessed session in 1956 because of “the far reaching spiritual consequences” of the resolution. Deferring action for one year would enable Wisconsin to “heed the Scriptural exhortations to patience and forbearance in love by giving The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod opportunity to express itself in its 1956 convention.”

Asked whether Romans 16:17 applied now or only in 1956, the floor committee chair answered: “Divisions and offenses are sufficient for cessation of fellowship. Most of the committee feels that it shouldn’t apply now. Others don’t agree. I think we agree that we aren’t ready to agree on its application.” Pressed further, the chairman added, “We feel [Romans 16:17] is applicable now, but feel that for other reasons we should defer.” Some on the convention floor suggested that the Romans passage called for “an avoiding that is progressive—a gradual leaning away; or that it could also be understood to refer to the inward avoiding of the error within our hearts.” One pastor rose to say:

I want to express my concern about all this talk of the applicability of Romans 16:17. Some divide the delegates into two groups, those who want to sever now, and those (including me) who don’t feel bound in conscience to sever yet. But I do feel that Romans 16:17 applies now, in fact we have been applying it. . . . I want to go on record as believing that we are practicing Romans 16:17, but don’t want to be accused of violating that word. I don’t say that we’re violating or rejecting Romans 16:17. I just don’t feel that this is the time to take the final step.

footnote: Schaller indicated that these exchanges “took place as noted down in writing at the time,” and “according to notes taken at that session.” His notes were “as literal a reproduction of the speaker’s expression as was possible under the circumstances.” Schaller claimed to retain “a vivid recollection” of the convention events, and the wording in his notes “reproduces correctly both the substance and the flavor of what was said.” end footnote

Seven members of the 22-member floor committee registered a dissenting vote, saying they were “of the conviction that the reasons stated for delay do not warrant postponement of action upon the resolution.” Convention delegates unanimously adopted the preamble of the resolution, recognizing Missouri as a “persistently erring” church body. The resolution itself, calling for postponement of terminating fellowship until 1956, was adopted by a standing vote of 94 to 47.

What should have been done at the 1955 convention “is still being debated,” Edward Fredrich has admitted, “and even what was done is still on occasion in dispute.” One member of the floor committee recalled that although he had come to the personal conviction that Wisconsin should break from Missouri, he feared many synod members had not been adequately informed to make a decision. If the resolution had passed by only a slim margin, greater harm than good may have resulted. But one convention delegate expressed the opposite view. “For me it was very disappointing to have the ’55 convention clearly recognize the situation it was facing with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, also say clearly what God’s Word asks of one in [such a] situation,” but not carry it through. “Many people at the convention felt sad and burdened. Many signed their names, protesting the failure to act.”

During the next two years, numerous protests were filed with the synod “for not immediately putting Romans 16:17 into force and breaking with Missouri.” Bible passages “flew back and forth.” The Rhinelander Delegate Conference in northern Wisconsin “deeply regretted” the delay. Gilbert Sydow, pastor in Ellensburg, Washington, told President Naumann he would not be upholding the synod’s 1955 decision and had informed his congregation that he believed there was an “ungodly separating” of “mark” and “avoid” in the Romans passage. Pastor V. E. Greve and Withrow Evangelical Lutheran Church in Washington also protested the synod’s actions as “a mutilation of Scripture. . . .

The Wisconsin Synod has become guilty of being only “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.” Since 1939 it has spoken well, it has witnessed a good confession, it has drawn nigh with its lips, but as a body it lacks courage to carry out its professed convictions. The Wisconsin Synod has reached the point that its sincerity is not in evidence. It has not proven itself, to others, and above all to God, that it meant what it said. . . . The Wisconsin Synod has failed to acquit itself as men in standing up for the truth of Scripture, but has come to a disregard for God’s command; to a mutilating of Scripture.

But Wisconsin’s leaders did not view their decision to delay breaking with Missouri as a lack of courage, but as an exercise in patience and love.

Bonds of fellowship, which the Lord by His Holy Spirit had established, are not easily loosed. We will admonish longer, have greater patience, put forth more efforts of love to restore and re-establish through His Word a fellowship once given by God through which He has richly blessed us, than we will put forth in attempting to establish a new fellowship. We are not dealing with a strange church body whose doctrines have been examined and found wanting and whom we must deny the hand of fellowship from the outset. We are dealing with those who have been our brethren for many years and whose keeper we must be as they have been ours. We are not dealing with an individual soul, but with a large church body. Dealing with an individual can more readily be brought to a definite conclusion. But even there Jesus admonishes us to put forth every effort of love and patience in order to win the brother who has trespassed.

Missouri’s 1956 convention took into account Wisconsin’s 1955 memorial. The entire Wisconsin Union Committee attended Missouri’s convention and found “a ray of hope” in Missouri’s actions. Regarding intersynodical relations, the Union Committee was “heartened by the frankness with which [Missouri] acknowl- edged that strained relations exist between our synods because there are very obvious differences of interpretation and practice” regarding fellowship.

footnote: The Confessional Lutheran was not as optimistic about Missouri’s 1956 convention, saying it was “difficult to analyze” the doctrinal resolutions delegates passed. “In some instances there seemed to be progress shown in the direction of a more conservative stand, while in many other instances the Synod either refused to take a stand, or took a stand which is unacceptable to those who hold to the Old Missouri position.” After an extensive review, the author concluded, “There is really no justification for being more than mildly hopeful at the very most” of a Missouri change in direction. end footnote

Wisconsin’s Union Committee report to a special 1956 synodical convention urged delegates to “hold the judgment of our Saginaw convention in abeyance.”1 The convention approved the motion by a margin of more than 5 to 1. The convention also endorsed Wisconsin participation in “the suggested conclave of theologians and take immediate steps to arrange such a gathering of theologians,” bringing pastors from overseas to become involved in a discussion of unresolved issues.

For those aware of the serious tensions rising between the synods, the decision of the 1956 convention must have come “as a surprise, regardless of their personal stand on the issues.” The decision revealed “a deep desire to do all that can be humanly done for the preservation of the fellowship of our Synodical Conference,” and “a profound concern lest some favorable factor in the intersynodical picture be overlooked.”

footnote: Armin Keibel recalled that Reim told the 1956 convention: “It was like a surgeon ready to sew up his inert patient when he detects a heartbeat. The flame of life needed to be fanned.” In private, Keibel asked Reim whether he thought Missouri was shedding “alligator tears.” Reim feared that was the case, yet maintained that Wisconsin was obliged to respond to Missouri’s official actions. end footnote

Professor E. E. Kowalke, of Northwestern College, delivered the 1956 convention essay, based on Romans 16:17,18. Most of his essay addressed disagreements between the synods over interpretation of the passage. But Kowalke directed his last remarks to the growing question within the Wisconsin Synod over when Romans 16:17 was to be carried out:

Is human judgment involved here? Of course it is, just as human Christian judgment must be employed in following Christ’s precepts as given in Matthew 18. Christian judgment determines when to cease from single personal admonition and when to call in others to help in winning the erring brother. Again, Christian judgment must be employed in choosing the two or three who are to join in admonishing the sinner. The alternative to Christian judgment in the practical application of this and all similar precepts is the legalistic form of application. In the case of Matthew 18, the legalist counts the number of admonitions, and when he gets to three the man is out, with no time wasted. . . .

If admonition proves to be fruitless and it becomes clear that our two bodies are no longer walking the same path, then of course a separation must be publicly declared as having taken place.

Kowalke also addressed the contentious spirit marking some calls for an immediate break with Missouri:

If it becomes necessary to declare the break as having taken place, then will come a time of great danger and temptation for the Wisconsin Synod. The first danger will be the temptation to be complacent and self-righteous for having taken a firm stand. There will be a tendency to look upon drastic action and vehement denunciation as evidence of orthodoxy. There will be the temptation to brand the weak, and the moderate too, as rank unionists. There will be those who will gauge a man’s Christianity by his rigidity over against Missouri. Even now certain pastors are being called disloyal and dishonest because they expressed the hope that a break would be avoided. Here I could furnish exact quotes.

Wisconsin’s 1957 convention at New Ulm was, by one estimate, “a repeat of 1955,” with the difference that “our union committee wanted to continue dealing with Missouri and our floor committee on union brought in a memorial to break.” In his preconvention report to the synod, First Vice President Irwin Habeck noted that “many individuals, several conferences, and one entire District” were convinced the synod was guilty of disobedience to the Word of God for not applying Romans 16:17 and 18 to the Missouri Synod. Others were persuaded that doctrinal discussions being conducted by the two synods would be “the one means by which we can testify of our convictions.”

In the convention essay, Elmer Kiessling, professor at Northwestern College, after reviewing both the admirable and ignoble features of the synod’s individualism and cohesiveness, urged, “Desirable as our individualism is, the need of the present hour is for cohesiveness.” Delegates needed to “remain united” if they were to take a positive stand on such important questions: “The trumpet must not only give a certain sound, but a single sound and one that is in tune. . . .

If the spirit of [synodical] harmony is momentarily lacking, it would seem better to wait and mark time, prayerfully, until God in his mercy restores it. In the meanwhile, there are a thousand things to do in the Church of God that are not quite so spectacular as smashing the tie that binds but perhaps more important in the long run. There is the ever present need to do mission work, to nurture the gifts of the Spirit within congregations and to encourage the work of Christian scholarship in the schools. Let these things be done well and we don’t have to feel that we are remiss in our duties or in danger of losing our heritage.

Convention delegates appeared evenly divided. One side insisted the break must be made because things had not improved in Missouri. The other side maintained that since little had changed between 1956 and 1957, it would be inconsistent to do at this convention what had not been done the year before. The floor committee by a 4 to 1 margin favored a split. One member of that floor committee recalled that a majority favored recommending a split, but three were opposed, hoping that Missouri would “clean up its act.” Debate grew long and strenuous, though no speaker defended Missouri’s practices. Debate centered on the word when. One delegate, initially in favor of the break, reconsidered after a layman shared with him that “members of the congregation didn’t yet understand why we should be breaking. There needed to be more instruction.”

Memorable at this convention was that, during the debate, Professor John P. Meyer, at 84 years of age, delivered “ex temporalis a brilliant exegesis on Romans 16:17 and 18.” Previous speakers had been limited to five minutes, but when Meyer spoke, Vice president Habeck advised, “No limit on this speaker!”

When the vote was called, delegates “decided that it would be proper for the Joint Union Committee to complete its agenda” and continue with its proposed Conclave of Theologians as well as to carry out the 1956 Synodical Conference recommendation that its joint union committee produce a common doctrinal statement to reflect the Conference’s position on fellowship. The final vote was 61 in support of the floor committee’s recommendation to break fellowship, 77 against, and Wisconsin maintained its vigorously protesting fellowship with Missouri.

In the view of seminary president Carl Lawrenz, Wisconsin’s delegates in 1957 were not expressing a division over “the validity of the charges which the Wisconsin Synod has raised against The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, nor on the divisive nature of the issues involved.” By voting as they did, they announced that they had not yet arrived at the conviction—as had the convention’s floor committee—that “the time for suspending relations had come.” They wanted recently inaugurated discussions between the union committees of the involved synods to continue “so that the group might have an opportunity to come to grip with the actual controversial issues.”

End Chapter 4 Part 4