A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 4 Part 6

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In 1958, Gehrke was assigned the doctrinal essay at the Western Wisconsin District convention, held, ironically, at Northwestern College, where Kowalke delivered his essay on Romans chapter 16 in 1956 and where both professors taught. The official convention report, authored by yet another Northwestern professor, Carleton Toppe, noted only that Gehrke “identified the boundaries of church fellowship as those of communion fellowship and pointed out that our relations with other Lutherans must be based on the principles set forth in Article VII of the Augsburg Confession.” Toppe’s description appears straightforward, even benign, but a clear understanding of the issues and a close parsing of Toppe’s carefully chosen words hint at how controversial Gehrke’s paper was.

“We cannot afford to imagine that these principles [of church fellowship] are clear in our midst or that everything is settled when it is not,” Gehrke began. “Much clarification must take place.” Citing Acts 2:41 and 42 and the Lutheran Confessions, Gehrke repeated the statement he made in his 1955 letter:

Our Augsburg Confession describes the Church . . . in its famous 7th article, saying, “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.” So according to both our Lutheran confessions and the Scripture Church Fellowship is participation in the means of grace.

Church fellowship was the same thing as Communion fellowship, and “genuine church fellowship arises from our partaking of and union with Christ through the means of grace.”

Where, then, are the boundaries of Communion fellowship? Citing early church tradition, Luther, and the New Testament, including Romans 16, Gehrke argued that so many American Lutherans had given up the old principles regarding church fellowship because “they have really lost the old Lutheran understanding of the Sacrament.” Article VII of the Augsburg Confession never identified the Lutheran church as “the only holy, universal Christian church, as the Roman church claims of itself.” People come to faith wherever the gospel is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. A church need not have “an explicitly historic confessional statement” to be a true church, but the Lutheran church must bear the “essential mark” of the historic Lutheran Confessions.

Gehrke lamented that “an erroneous idea of the unity of the Lutheran Church, and therefore also of church fellowship” had arisen even in some Wisconsin Synod writings. These writings insisted that agreement must be based not only on “the doctrine of the Gospel and of the administration of the Sacraments” but on “all so-called ‘doctrinal statements’ that can be directly or indirectly drawn from the Holy Scripture.” They demanded “uniformity in the interpretation of all passages in the Bible that have ‘doctrinal’ import,” which were derived “by means of their doctrinal system of theories and theological opinions.” But the clarity of Scripture “does not guarantee that the full exhaustive meaning of a Bible passage must immediately be grasped by every well-meaning Christian reader.” Remarking on “the call of these Orthodox Lutheran people” to go “back to the Brief Statement,” Gehrke asserted, “We just can’t put the temporary consensus of such little theological schools and trends in thinking in place of that consensus of the Church which overspans the ages and which we have in our Lutheran Confessions.”

The practical upshot of Gehrke’s paper was that “we cannot put all church bodies with which we now have no church-fellowship on the same level, simply labeling them all ‘heterodox.’ ” The Wisconsin Synod “should not close [its mind] to the possibility and often even [the] advisability” of serious doctrinal discussions with non-Lutheran bodies. Lutherans could join with non-Lutherans to protect their religious rights under the constitution, to oppose legislation harmful to their parochial schools, or even to learn native languages and customs in foreign mission settings.

Regarding Wisconsin-Missouri relations, Gehrke said, “If Missouri is in agreement with us in the doctrine of the Gospel and in the administration of the Sacraments, then our fellowship with Missouri must be upheld.” Repeating the practical ramifications of a resolution to break fellowship that he had voiced to the Union Committee three years before, Gehrke concluded:

I personally consider the Missouri Synod, despite individual aberrations in her midst and despite her own dangerous tendencies in some areas like Scouting and Chaplaincy, to be as a Synod an orthodox body. That goes for her leadership and for her congregations in general. Rather than prematurely breaking off fellowship, as some want, we should use every means to strengthen the existing fellowship, especially through the present negotiations.

Significant differences stood between Gehrke’s paper and the Union Committee’s presentation on church fellowship, presented to delegates at Wisconsin’s 1959 convention. Gehrke’s definition that “church fellowship is participation in the means of grace” excludes prayer fellowship, since prayer is not a means of grace. By contrast, the Union Committee defined church fellowship as “every joint expression, manifestation, and demonstration of the common faith in which Christians are united with one another.” The Committee statement refused to distinguish “means of grace” fellowship from other Christian activity, but regarded “pulpit fellowship, altar fellowship, prayer fellowship, fellowship in worship, fellowship in church work, in missions, in Christian education, in Christian charity” as “all essentially one and the same thing,” and “all properly covered by a common designation, namely church fellowship.”

Gehrke did not believe fellowship required uniformity in the interpretation of all passages in the Bible, achieved “by means of their doctrinal system of theories and theological opinions.” By contrast, the Union Committee statement said that fellowship is no longer to be practiced with “those who in spite of patient admonition persistently adhere to an error in doctrine or practice, demand recognition for their error, and make propaganda for it.” To further define “an error in doctrine,” the Union Committee added, “A Christian confession of faith is in principle always a confession of the entire Word of God,” finding it “an untenable position” to “designate certain nonfundamental doctrines as not being divisive of church fellowship by their very nature.”

Kowalke, Northwestern’s president through 1959, remarked that “it was understood that the controversy would not be carried into the classroom unless the subject under discussion there naturally required reference to the synodical troubles.” Faculty members avoided debating the issues at their official meetings, and “discussions were instead carried on in private,” confined to “person to person argument.” The son of another Watertown professor remembered that “Dad was close-mouthed about things going on in the faculty when I was an Northwestern College student and even later.” As “very gifted, widely read, good teachers,” Gehrke and Jungkuntz both had helped produce some of the tracts designed to educate Wisconsin members on synodical differences. Jungkuntz authored an especially clear exposition on the doctrine of justification, a part of which criticized the inadequacy of the Common Confession’s treatment of that doctrine.

In summer 1961, one of the two (Kowalke does not say which) announced simply, “I share the Missouri position.” During that convention Jungkuntz accepted a call to Missouri’s Concordia Seminary in Springfield, Gehrke to Concordia College, River Forest.

footnote: Jungkuntz had already been scheduled to serve as a guest lecturer for the 1961 summer session at Concordia, Springfield. end footnote

footnote: According to a study based on Wisconsin Synod Statistical Reports, 82 pastors, 8 professors, 12 teachers, and 8,065 communicants left the synod between 1957 and 1964. Numbers for communicant members were admittedly incomplete and somewhat unreliable because in some places only a few members withdrew from a congregation with their pastor, while others may have left one Wisconsin Synod congregation to join a neighboring church or to form a new congregation. Krueger concluded that as a general rule, those who left before 1961 joined the CLC, while those who left after 1961 were more likely to join the Missouri Synod or remain independent. end footnote

Northwestern’s Board of Control refused to grant them a peaceful release of their calls, citing their “public rejection of the Synod’s position regarding the principles of church fellowship.” Gehrke charged that synod leadership “harassed us, claiming that our criticism was not just a criticism of the committee but of the historic stand of the Wisconsin Synod.”

footnote: In a 1978 interview, Gehrke reminisced on having been raised in “the ultra-conservative Wisconsin Synod,” where he was “brought up straight- laced.” In college, his professors “claimed black people were cursed because ‘Ham awoke from his drunkenness . . . and cursed them all,’” and their comments about Jewish people “shouldn’t be repeated.” end footnote

“I saw a problem in our emphasis on the unit concept”

While the union committees of the various synods made progress during 1958 through 1960 over other controverted issues, the 1960 Synodical Conference had to report that differences over prayer fellowship between Missouri and Wisconsin had come to the point that “an impasse has been reached.” Irwin Habeck sought to explain the differences in understanding of the two synods regarding prayer fellowship:

[In Missouri] it is contended that joint prayer with those who are not in complete doctrinal agreement may not be ruled out in advance, but that each case must be judged by the situation (with whom we are praying), the character of the prayer (what is said in it), the purpose which we have in mind, and the effect upon others. The arguments which are usually raised against such joint prayer are questioned, namely: 1. that praying together means indicating that there are no differences or that the differences are unimportant; 2. that refusal to pray together is merely showing that no full agreement exists; and 3. that those not in agreement will pray against each other. From the same viewpoint, with restrictions, prayer in civic occasions is found to be justifiable.

Missouri’s Martin Franzmann said Lutherans could pray with one another and even join in “public prayer at civic functions” because such joint prayer can serve as a “public witness of the church’s intercession on the behalf of man.” Certainly a “compromise prayer,” in which Muslims, Hindus, or pious agnostics may join, “is always and everywhere an abomination on the lips of a Christian,” Franzmann explained, and a prayer “which is the product of a blind, sentimental enthusiasm and therefore conceals or smoothes over differences in themselves divisive, is indefensible.” But Franzmann warned against closing the door entirely on joint prayer. “May we not, by too facile and too simple a ruling concerning joint prayer, become guilty of crushing the bruised reed and quenching the smoldering wick by making the names ‘Confessional’ and ‘Orthodox’ names which smell of lovelessness?”

Here, Habeck countered, is where “we go apart.

We believe, indeed, that the first reaction of a Christian when he meets with one who confesses Jesus as his Lord is to have fellowship with him. But we also believe that the Lord has commanded us to avoid those between whom and us there are differences in teaching. We believe, too, that prayer is first of all worship, and that we may not go before the throne of God together with those with whom He tells us not to be together. We recognize, indeed, that we are to be very patient with those who err out of weakness and not to break with them quickly, but we also believe that fellowship with those who are set in their error is ruled out, and by fellowship we mean every form of worship or spiritual work.

The Overseas Committee meeting with the Joint Doctrinal Committee of Synodical Conference synods had preferred a view of church fellowship focused more on the marks of the church, similar to the views of Hermann Sasse and Ralph Gehrke, rather than Wisconsin’s “unit concept.”

footnote: Point 13 said, “Prayer is not one of the marks of the church and should not be coordinated with Word and Sacrament, as though it were essentially of the same nature as they. As a response to the divine Word, it is an expression of faith and a fruit of faith, and when spoken before others, a profession of faith. As a profession of faith it must be in harmony with and under the control of the marks of the church.” end footnote

As it grew clear that church fellowship would be the issue ultimately to separate the synods, E. H. Wendland, pastor in Benton Harbor, Michigan, recalled, “This worried me, not because I disagreed with the importance of the issue itself, but because I saw a problem in our emphasis on the unit concept.”

footnote Wendland had been a key participant on intersynodical issues for almost a decade. He presented the essay on “Justification” at Wisconsin’s 1951 convention in New Ulm, evaluating the Common Confession’s presentation of that doctrine. In 1953, he authored Every Sinner Declared Righteous, the third of Wisconsin’s 11 tracts concerning controverted issues between the synods. At the 1954 Synodical Conference convention, he presented an essay, “The Inadequacy of the ‘Common Confession’ As a Settlement of Past Differences.” Along with John P. Meyer, he was appointed to a committee assigned to pursue further doctrinal discussions with Missouri representatives. From 1955 through 1959, he was among those who noted encouraging signs in Missouri’s withdrawal of the Common Confession, its statement on the doctrine of Scripture, and its apparent agreement on the teaching of the Antichrist in 1959. Thus Wendland could not be numbered either among those protesting Wisconsin reluctance to break with Missouri or with those who refused to apply Romans chapter 16 to Missouri.end footnote

At a meeting of the Southwestern Conference of the Michigan District in January 1961, attended also by the synod’s Commission on Doctrinal Unity, Wendland presented a paper entitled “Church Fellowship—A Unit Concept?” Acknowledging that “sooner or later it had to come to this” because for years Wisconsin had summarized its objections with Missouri as “unionism,” the situation now facing the synod was that “the general consensus of our Districts seems to be this that our commission’s presentation on Church Fellowship is Scriptural, and if Missouri does not agree with it, it can only mean a final break in church relations.”

Citing the major premise of the Commission’s fellowship statement: “Church fellowship is every joint expression, manifestation, and demonstration of the common faith in which Christians on the basis of their confession find themselves to be united with one another,” Wendland admitted he found it “difficult at first reading to comprehend the full significance of everything included.” The more one reads the statement, he wrote, “the more we come to the conclusion that its basic concept is man’s faith-activity. Faith in its joint activity on the basis of a united confession is church fellowship defined.”

This premise was then clarified through six logical steps designed to demonstrate “how Scripture leads us to this concept of church fellowship.” Understanding the logic of this progression of steps was key to embracing the legitimacy of the premise:


1. Faith in Christ makes us God’s children.
2. Faith in Christ unites us with all other believers. (These two steps affirmed Wisconsin’s recognition of the Una Sancta, the one Holy Christian Church. The remaining four steps led the reader from the Una Sancta to the premise statement.)
3. Faith invariably expresses itself outwardly.
4. This outward expression of faith also is God’s work in us.
5. Through the common bond of faith, the Holy Spirit leads us to express our faith jointly with fellow Christians.
6. Every joint expression of faith is what we designate as church fellowship.

Following the trail of this logical progression convinced Wendland even more that “the whole emphasis in this fellowship concept [was] on man’s faith,” which left Wendland “strangely uneasy, to say the least.” The problem lay not so much in what Wisconsin’s fellowship statement said as in what it left unsaid.

We would like to point out that our Lutheran church on the basis of Scripture has always emphasized God’s activity in us and through us as basic to the understanding of that fellowship (koinonia) which we have with Him and also with one another. And how do we know or recognize that all fellowship is God-created and God-centered? Certainly we do not look to man’s faith-activity for the final answer. We may observe the fruits of faith in action. Frequently the Scriptures encourage us to do so. Our basic assurance of fellowship, however, rests with God. . . . Our Lutheran Confessions have always emphasized the Means of Grace as the distinguishing marks or characteristics of the church of Jesus Christ rather than the faith- activity of man.

Wendland considered the absence of any mention of the means of grace the “basic weakness” of the Commission’s presentation. Though it contained “many statements which no doubt can be understood correctly,” the emphasis on man’s faith-activity instead of God’s action in Word and Sacrament had the potential for “various dangers.” First was “a forced use of Scripture passages as proof texts.” Wendland cited an unnamed commentator “who has distinguished himself in the field of exegetical studies.

One should not search the Bible from the standpoint of fixed alternatives, for through the inadequate formulation of questions the expressions of Scripture do not receive their immediate value, but are rather incorrectly prognosticated and broken up as rays through a prism. Exegesis must let the Scriptures themselves speak and explain their contents in such a way that they address themselves directly to our concrete situation. Toward the upholding of this principle exegesis must constantly strive, but it happens again and again that the declarations of the Bible are distorted through formulated questions which are foreign to the text.

A second danger was that the synodical presentation suffered in the use of terms it did not clarify. The opening sentence of the statement’s summary paragraph—“In the matter of the outward expression of Christian fellowship, the exercise of church fellowship, particularly two principles need to direct us”—seemed to create a distinction between fellowship with the Holy Christian Church (“Christian fellowship”) and the outward expression of that fellowship in faith-based activities of men (“church fellowship”). In a later portion of the statement, however, excommunication, based on Matthew 18:17 and First Corinthians 5:1 through 6,

footnote: “And if he shall neglect to hear them [two or three witnesses], tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (King James Version).

“It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornica- tion as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, con- cerning him that hath so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (King James Version).

was called “termination of church fellowship.” Was it correct to regard excommunication and suspension of fellowship as identical forms of “termination of church fellowship”?

The final danger concerned the practical application of the unit concept:

What do we mean by “furthering the cause of the Gospel” as one of the expressions of faith included in our unit concept of fellowship? Distributing God’s Word is certainly furthering the cause of the Gospel. This would mean that our congregation could no longer contribute to the work of the American Bible Society, since this work is also supported by those not in confessional agreement with us. Any joint expression of faith in the matter of “Christian education” is an activity to be included under church fellowship. One would hardly feel free, then, in joining with people of heterodox church bodies in linguistic studies, editing and publishing works of Luther, or participating jointly in any undertaking involving the gifts God has given us for the furtherance of His work. If some of these applications sound rather forced and legalistic it is not because we feel that they should be included under the concept of church fellowship. We feel, however, that our Commission’s definition of the term as it stands and as it proceeds from “every” expression of man’s faith activity forces this conclusion upon us.

In a second paper, written the next month, Wendland repeated the concerns he had already expressed, adding that throughout the Lutheran Confessions the Church “is basically the assembly of believers around Word and sacraments,” as it was for Luther. “Church was Church because Jesus was there through the Holy Spirit with all His gifts,” not because it depended on any qualities of men. The church “was not to be defined as an assembly of saints in which faith or good works became manifest, or in which good people developed properly in works of sanctification.”

Wendland even offered an alternative statement: “Church Fellowship is the expression of our membership in the Church, the Body of Christ, through joint use of the Means of Grace.” Wendland’s subparts to this statement emphasized the church as the body of Christ, the means of grace through which the Holy Spirit unites people into a believing fellowship, and church fellowship to be expressed wherever the means of grace were rightly used.

And Wendland voiced a practical concern that has proved to be prophetic:

The fact that Church Fellowship is a joint use of the Means of Grace our people will understand. They will also understand that this use will have to be practiced according to principles defined by the Word of God. But that “Church Fellowship is every joint expression, manifestation, and demonstration of the common faith in which Christians on the basis of their confession find themselves to be united with one another” will result in legalistic misunderstandings and misapplications which we do not wish to be responsible for.

The Statement of the Overseas Committee strengthened Wendland’s conviction that “a few of us in the southwestern corner of Michigan are not alone in this,” because it “put the finger” on what Wendland regarded as the greatest weakness of the Wisconsin Fellowship Theses. “Many of those overseas who do not agree with [the synodical theses] are conservative men.” Insisting on its formulation would place the Wisconsin Synod “into the theological isolation of a ‘unit concept’ of Church Fellowship which many of us do not fully understand and few of us can adequately defend.”

In the Missouri Synod, the American Lutheran’s Otto Geiseman regarded the impending synodical split optimistically. “Under calmer circumstances” and absent any conflict caused by “personalities, long-standing prejudices, and organizational interests,” the departure of the Wisconsin and Norwegian synods from the Synodical Conference could provide an opportunity for “continued discussions with that large number of pastors and congregations in these synods, who I confidently believe, see more clearly the difference between human opinions and God’s eternal truths” than some of the synods’ leaders did. Looking beyond the present members of the Synodical Conference, Geiseman also hoped that dissolution would “serve the purpose of more closely uniting many of the Christians now in opposing camps than they have been united in decades.”

footnote: Following the 1961 vote, and after reading “a friendly letter from a brother in the Wisconsin Synod,” Geiseman again expressed his conviction that “the rank and file of pastors and lay members of the Wisconsin Synod are as evangelical in spirit as we would like to be in our ministries and that they are no more ready than we to substitute tradition and human deductions for the simple Word of God.” end footnote

As 1960 had been a year of decision for American voters, electing for the first time a Roman Catholic as president, 1961 would be a year of decision in the Synodical Conference. “There are indications,” wrote an American Lutheran editorialist, “that internal tensions within [the Wisconsin and Norwegian synods] may force them to take this step, though reluctantly.” Pastors and members of the Missouri and Slovak synods “continue to hope that withdrawal, if it should occur, will not mean a complete and abrupt termination of such relations as do exist in certain areas.”

Edward A. Beyersdorf, editor of the Milwaukee Lutheran, recommended that the Synodical Conference be dissolved because its members had become “incompatible.” Their continued partnership “under armed guard” could do nothing but bring harm to both synods. “Bitterness has been growing between the clergy of both groups.” The conference had become “unbeneficial” and a “burden on the backs of all concerned.”

End Chapter 4 part 6