A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 4 Part 5

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Church of the Lutheran Confession withdrawal

But by voting as they did, delegates could no longer preserve the synod’s own fragile fellowship. As the convention came to its conclusion, Paul Albrecht, district president of the Dakota- Montana District, rose to the floor and said:

I know the Bible passage, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head and honor the face of the old man.” Professor Meyer knows that I have loved and honored him since the day that I first met him. But I must disagree with him now; for I cannot operate with Scripture as he did last night. To heed his advice would lead straight down the path of unionism.

I agree with him when he says that it would be sinful to say, “I am through with the Wisconsin Synod.” I shall never be through with the Wisconsin Synod as little as I can ever be through with any member of my own family.

But I cannot follow the course which the Synod has now chosen. . . . This decision I shall oppose with all my might because it is a rejection of a clear Word of God.

Under these circumstances, I will, of course, not be able to serve the Synod on its Union Committee, nor in any other way which would mean support of the Synod’s decision to reject the [floor committee’s report] and its use of Romans 16:17 and 18.

While I do not refuse the hand of fellowship to all members of the Synod, I cannot fellowship with those who have advocated the position which the Synod made its own last night. Second Thesslonians 3:6, 11, 14, and 15. (It is self-evident that fellowship with those who now or in the future support and advocate the Synod’s present position is impossible.)

I am fully aware of the implication of this statement as far as my District is concerned.

The front-page story of the Milwaukee Journal on Monday, August 19, 1957, announced that Edmund Reim resigned as president of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary and as a member of the synod “as a result of the refusal by the Wisconsin synod to break off relations with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.”

footnote: Already in 1955, Reim had said from the convention floor, “I can continue in fellowship with my Synod only under clear and public protest.” He resigned his position as secretary of the synod’s Standing Committee on Church Union and, insisting that he could not change his stand and teaching “in order to conform to the synodical policy,” also offered his resignation as president and professor at he seminary. The seminary’s board of control subsequently voted not to accept Reim’s resignation. In 1957, Reim cited his 1955 statement that the convention’s action not only failed to remove the occasion for his protest, but “increases and confirms it.” Since his “clear and strong” protest to the synod had been “disregarded,” Reim found himself “compelled to discontinue [his] fellowship with the Synod,” adding: “I trust that you will realize that I take this step, not in anger, but in deepest sorrow, and because I am constrained by the Word of God.” end footnote

If he had been a congregational pastor, Reim said, he might have continued serving while protesting Wisconsin’s continued affiliation with Missouri. But “because of his position at the seminary—a position in which he was guiding theological students—he was resigning.” The same story reported that Pacific Northwest District president Maynard Witt also resigned from the synod, and that Albrecht resigned his position on the synod’s church union committee.

To Paul Nolting, pastor in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, the convention resolution maintaining its “vigorously protesting fellowship” was “an artificial and unconvincing ‘official interpretation,’” necessitated “to make this obvious disobedience appear to be obedience.” That a majority of delegates could reject a floor committee report “completely and entirely in accord with the Scriptures” signaled “something terribly wrong.” Comments made on the convention floor “that should have been corrected immediately but were not” strengthened one letter writer’s perception that “the Wisconsin Synod is a very sick synod.” Now being suggested was the possibility “of forming a small synod” for the “continuance of orthodoxy.” To do so might notify “the liberals among us that we will not have them take over synod and its doctrinal policy” and that “they might find themselves outside of Synod unless they confess Scripture-wise with us.”

By October 1957, at least 25 protests were lodged against the convention’s action to remain in fellowship with Missouri. Pastor Robert Reim of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, protested the synod’s resolution. Martin Galstad, professor at Dr. Martin Luther College in New Ulm, could not support the synod’s position. Pastor Gilbert Sydow suspended membership with the synod while maintaining an organizational tie (Sydow called it “holding membership in abeyance for the time being”). Pastor Paul Knickelbein in Milwaukee protested the synod’s disobedience to the Word, noting that more than two hundred Wisconsin Synod members belonged to the unionistic group Lutheran Men of America. Pastor Marvin Radtke of Ann Arbor, Michigan, could not accept the synod’s action as being in conformity with Romans 16:17 and believed discussions with Missouri should continue only outside the framework of fellowship. Pastor William Wiedenmeyer in Phoenix issued a vehement protest against the synod’s action and promised to do everything possible to persuade his congregation to suspend synodical membership and withdraw its financial support. Pastor George Barthels in Red Wing, Minnesota, protested and disavowed the synod’s actions, and Pastor Edwin Bonieck of Flint, Michigan, registered his support of the Floor Committee’s resolution. Twelve pastors from the Colorado Pastoral Conference disavowed the synod’s actions as a violation of the Word; they, eight pastors of the Lake Superior Pastoral Conference, and the entire Winnebago Pastoral Conference asked for a special synod convention. Pastor John Lau of Onalaska, Wisconsin, and six members of his church council protested. Pastors Robert Dommer of Spokane and Leonnard Bernthal in Clarkston, Washington, suspended fellowship with Wisconsin as a persistently erring body. In Japan, missionary Fred Tiefel resigned from the synod.

At a meeting of the New Ulm pastoral conference at Sleepy Eye on September 25, 1957, Paul Nolting presented a detailed study that solidified the interpretation of the words mark and avoid in Romans 16:17 among those protesting the synod’s decision. Nolting’s paper became the declaratory statement defining their differences with the synod, not as a matter of timing but of doctrinal disagreement.

footnote:Lyle Lange went so far as to say that Nolting’s paper “gave rise to the Church of the Lutheran Confession.” end footnote

Since the admonition to mark was given “in the interest of self-protection against the errorists,” Nolting rejected the addition of any concept of admonition to the word: “The simultaneous physical and practical effect of the marking upon the marker is the avoiding,” with no time lapse. “The avoiding is simultaneous with the marking. . . .

The action of the verb is directed at anyone and everyone who persistently disobeys the Truth in doctrine and practice, thus causing divisions and offenses. We reject any argument that this passage calls for admonition, while granting the admonitory effect of the “avoiding.” . . . This passage is dealing with people who, as far as our generation is concerned, always have been disobedient to the Truth or people who were once obedient but who, despite all admonition, have become persistently disobedient. The latter situation concerns us at the moment. Romans 16:17 PRESUPPOSES loving admonition. It comes after such admonition has failed, for it has to do with people who are persistently disobedient, and are thus causing divisions and offenses. This passage is the end of the trail. Its only admonition is the possible admonitory effect of the “avoiding.”

Rejecting the plea that Missouri “had not yet been convincingly proven to be persistent in causing divisions and offenses,” he insisted that Wisconsin had been “patiently and lovingly admonishing the Missouri Synod” to no avail since 1939. He rejected as “sophistry” the argument that avoiding must be “deferred until all hope of regaining the erring is extinguished,” and asked, “Where in God’s Word does God give us the right to disobey now because of the possibility of a change in the future?” Had God spoken that way, “the time for avoiding would never come, for His people would be weakened by constant contact with the erring to the point of inability to act.”

On October 22, 1957, a special convention of the Dakota- Montana District met at Aberdeen, South Dakota, to address the synod convention’s resolutions. District President Albrecht may have returned from the New Ulm convention believing he could win his entire district to his point of view. Other members of the district became convinced, however, that Albrecht had been selective in the information he had shared with them regarding the direction of Wisconsin’s leadership. The thinking of the “Albrecht group”—though, admittedly, “no more than talk”—was to make Northwestern Lutheran Academy at Mobridge, South Dakota, the college for a new Dakota-Montana Synod, with the recently completed education building at Albrecht’s Bowdle, South Dakota, congregation serving as the new synod’s seminary. When a district floor committee rejected Albrecht’s report and endorsed the synod’s continued negotiations with Missouri, Albrecht offered his resignation as district president, which was debated and rejected.

One participant in those meetings suggested that Albrecht’s “fall from grace” was “not entirely a disagreement with his theological position” but partly a reaction to “his dictatorial relationship” with candidates moving into his district. “Many were looking for a way to stick it to him.”

After additional meetings and a certain amount of intrigue, the district at its regular 1958 convention urged the Wisconsin Synod to continue its negotiations with Missouri and elected Walter Schumann Jr. as president in Albrecht’s place. Ultimately five congregations with seven pastors and eight hundred communicants left the Dakota-Montana District.

footnote: Herbert Birner described 12 letters that Albrecht claimed to have received, protesting the district’s action in rejecting his report; these letters, it turned out, were written at a “semi-secret meeting” orchestrated by Albrecht himself. end footnote

The grief of the 1950s was still evident in President Schumann’s report to the 1960 district convention. More recently, Schumann reflected:

Many, many are the times I have relived [those turbulent years], wondering what actions we could have taken along the way to minimize the district’s losses. I have come to the conclusion that in reality there were none. The initiative always seemed to rest with the opposition. The “colored” reports brought back from Milwaukee, the secret meetings to which only a select few were invited, the declarations of suspended fellowship, the exclusive communion services, the establishment of a separate conference, the attempts to lead entire congregations out of the Synod, the efforts to gain control of physical property—all were instigated by the opposition. It seemed we were always on the defensive, reacting to challenges from the other side. I must confess that I don’t know what else we could have done to prevent the losses that the district experienced.

Those who lived through it maintain differing recollections. “Some of [the pastors] did not really want to leave,” said one who stayed, “but after the big power shift in the district, they were disfellowshiped. Those were scary days. It was three strikes and you were out.” According to a member of the post-1958 praesidium, however, “Each and every one who made it known that he was a part of the ‘minority’ were visited in their studies in a spirit of reconciliation,” and if that effort failed, “a personal letter was sent to them explaining their personal situation concerning their membership in the District and the Synod. No one was ever ‘written off.’” While many pastors in the minority eventually returned to the district, “the praesidium did have to recognize a confessional stand when they were given it.” Those “who sincerely and confessionally found it impossible to return were some of the prominent formulators of the Church of the Lutheran Confession.”

In other regions of the synod, movements also began developing to form a new church body. Immanuel at Mankato, Minnesota, one of the largest Wisconsin Synod congregations in its Minnesota District, had withdrawn from the synod already in 1956.

footnote: To illustrate Immanuel pastor Gervasius Fischer’s displeasure with both synods, two items appeared in the congregational newsletter for January 1958. The first, entitled, “Missouri in Public Relations,” criticized how far the synod would go “to bring its hollow worldly glory to the world” by having Lutheran Hour speaker Oswald Hoffmann appear in the Rose Bowl parade on a float with the motto “Where Dreams Come True.” Commented Fischer: “Was the motto and float symbolic of Jeremiah 23:27 and following?” The second article, “We Nominate,” accused the Wisconsin Synod church in Mankato of “having reached the lowest possible point in church publicity” by placing an ad that said, “Sorry! We ran plum out of chow at our harvest supper and bazaar October 3. We’ll plan for much more next year! Thank you for coming over and please plan to stop in on us next time. Thank you.” end footnote

A free conference at Immanuel on December 4th and 5th, 1957, was attended by other pastors and congregations that had withdrawn from the synod. The minutes of that meeting record that the purpose of the conference was “to begin working toward the goal of organizing [a new church body] but not to fully organize at this time.”

Similar exploratory meetings were held at Trinity Church, Spokane, Washington, November 18th and 19th, 1957, and Gethsemane Church, Opportunity, Washington, January 23rd and 24th, 1958. At a free conference at Redeemer Church, Cheyenne, Wyoming, May 6th through 8th, 1958, the Lutheran Spokesman was begun; its first issue appeared in June 1958 and was published bimonthly thereafter. At the first full convention of the Church of the Lutheran Confession in 1960, the Spokesman was designated the official organ of the church body.

The record of an Interim Conference in Mankato, January 13th through 15th, 1959, showed 21 pastors, 7 teachers, 16 laypeople, and 4 seminary students registered as participants. The group expressed interest in forming a school for training pastors and teachers.

Another Interim Committee Meeting convened at Red Wing, Minnesota,

footnote: This Is Your Church: Church of the Lutheran Confession explained, “When it became apparent in which direction things were going, the group called itself ‘The Interim Conference.’ ” The name “had reference to the time between the withdrawing from one synodical organization and participating in the formation of another.” end footnote

August 18th through 21st, 1959, only a week after the synod’s convention met in Saginaw. On August 9th through 12th, 1960, meeting in Watertown, South Dakota, delegates selected “Church of the Lutheran Confession” from among nine proposed names. Delegates also conducted their first colloquy, declaring a recent graduate from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary as a candidate for the Church of the Lutheran Confession ministry. On December 23, 1960, articles of incorporation for the Church of the Lutheran Confession were filed with the state of Minnesota. A recessed convention in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, January 24th through 26th, 1961, launched the Journal of Theology as the Church of the Lutheran Confession’s official doctrinal publication.

Statistics for 1960 showed 7,120 baptized members and 4,740 communicants in 44 congregations, and 276 Christian day school students in 7 schools taught by 15 teachers. By 1975, the numbers had risen to 9,790 souls, 7,105 communicants in 72 congregations, and 443 students in 15 Christian day schools with 45 teachers. In addition, the Church of the Lutheran Confession has maintained Immanuel College and Seminary in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, since 1963.

footnote: The Northwestern Lutheran reported almost none of the developments concerning the establishment of the CLC, but other Lutheran publications did. end footnote

Gehrke and Jungkuntz

Not all the synodical turmoil was fomented by those who disagreed with the synod’s 1955 convention decision or among those who considered it sinful to allow time to pass between the marking and avoiding of Romans 16:17. For some, the differences with synodical brethren were not over when the marking and avoiding should take place but over the very notion of applying that passage to the Missouri Synod at all. This minority argued that avoid them could refer only to non-Christians or to the willfully deceptive, not to professed Christians who disagreed over doctrines that were not central to the faith.

Some of that disagreement came from two professors at Northwestern College, Ralph Gehrke and Richard Jungkuntz. Both are remembered as popular, gifted professors, as was their predecessor Martin Franzmann, who also taught at Northwestern before moving to Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1946. One student recalled Gehrke’s courses in ancient history and the history of the Greeks as the most thorough he ever had on those subjects.

Following the 1955 convention, the synod’s Union Committee received a letter from Gehrke, different from the many letters protesting the convention action. Attached to his letter was a list of concerns he had addressed to the convention’s floor committee. Wisconsin had no right to apply Romans chapter 16 to heretics, Gehrke insisted, because it had not defined Missouri’s false doc- trine clearly enough to make the charge stick. Romans chapter 16 was meant to excommunicate or “anathematize,” but Wisconsin could not do that to Missouri now.

footnote: Gehrke’s letters are not included in the file, but the notes of the Union Committee meeting of Monday, October 17, 1955, contain, in Siegler’s handwriting, a summary of Gehrke’s letter. Quotations are, therefore, direct quotes of Siegler’s notes, not necessarily Gehrke’s own words. end footnote

The synod had to be very clear on what it would mean to break with Missouri over church fellowship. Altar and pulpit fellowship; congregational transfers of memberships; joint work in parochial schools, missions, and Bethesda Lutheran Home in Watertown, Wisconsin—all would be discontinued. Church fellowship was “fellowship in the means of grace,” Gehrke contended, and “if we use Romans 16 in this connection, we are bound to [the] above results.” Gehrke opposed the termination of all fellowship with Missouri because in Romans chapter 16 “Paul does not refer to [a] theological stand or application,” but “to [the] Gospel.” Did Missouri’s stand “rest on the same level with great soul-destroying heresies? No, a thousand times, no.” The most that could be said at this time was that “we cannot continue operating with Missouri.”

A second option, precipitated by intersynodical difficulties, was that Wisconsin could suspend joint work with Missouri simply as a practical matter, without resorting to Romans chapter 16 or Titus chapter 3 for proof.

footnote: “A man that is an heretick, after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself” (Titus 3:10-11).

This option Gehrke also rejected: “Here too we have to clearly define where Missouri violates Scriptures and [the] Confessions.” A third alternative would require Wisconsin to “continue present discussions inside [the] framework [of fellowship] at present.” If a break became unavoidable, Wisconsin must first “clearly give confession” and “point out Missouri’s error.” Many Wisconsin members “had not come to grips” with what a break in fellowship would mean. “To force [the] issue now [would] disturb thousands of consciences.” Gehrke saw “some glimpses of hope that Missouri will not go down the road to liberalism.” Wisconsin “should still follow Galatians 6” and regard Missouri as “overtaken in a fault.”

footnote: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1 and 2). end footnote

Gehrke himself was “ready to appear personally before [the] committee if requested.”

The Union Committee referred Gehrke’s letter to the synod’s Conference of Presidents and to the Northwestern Board of Control. Thus Northwestern president E. E. Kowalke must have been aware of Gehrke’s position. Kowalke’s essay at the recessed convention in 1956 at Watertown—an exegesis of the Romans passage—seems clearly to have been a response to the Gehrke letter. Gehrke’s position bore obvious similarities to the positions of Adolph Brux and Hermann Sasse. By criticizing the view of Brux and Sasse, Kowalke was also refuting Gehrke.

Dr. Brux insists that Paul refers only to fundamental doctrines that touch the very person of Christ and that the contrary doctrines are those that remove the very foundation from under the Christian Church. Dr. Sasse too believes that the contrary doctrine here refers to the heresies that destroyed the Gospel of Christ, the great heresies of ancient times and the heresies of the grosser sects of modern times. Luther’s interpretation had much broader coverage. He includes all human doctrine as apart from and in addition to the teaching of Christ.

Kowalke also clearly regarded Missouri’s errors as being in violation of the Romans passage:

Paul is warning all Christians who create such divisions and scandals as were happening in Rome. What is it that has caused the rift in the Synodical Conference? Is it not minding of earthly things, the exaltation of human doctrines? What is the religion of Scouting but a scheme set alongside the Gospel as a rival road to per- fection? What is the official religion as recommended for the armed forces but an amalgamation of all religions, on the assumption that all are equally good and true? Is that not a doctrine and a thing of the flesh? What is the publicity hunger but a worship of an earthly thing? Is that not serving the belly? . . . What are we fighting about? Is it not that we are no longer traveling the same road? We no longer think the same way or speak the same language or judge by the same principles. The Union Negotiations, the Chaplaincy, the Scouting Alliance, the numerous cases of joint prayer at public functions with representatives of denominations not in fellowship with us are all cases in point.

End Chapter 4 Part 5