A Tale of Two Synods Chapter 4 Part 7

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At the 1961 convention, it became clear that Wendland was not alone in his contention that the synod’s theses on church fellowship were unclear. Henry Koch, pastor in Greenleaf, Wisconsin, concurred with a letter received from the Overseas Commission, charging Wisconsin’s fellowship theses with being “unscriptural.”

footnote: Following the convention, Koch faulted both synods for the break. He criticized Wisconsin for not giving greater regard to the Statement of the Overseas Commission and “particularly deplored the fact that the Wisconsin Synod’s committee refused to await further studies and their outcome but seemingly was determined to vote for a break with Missouri.” Koch even charged that what Wisconsin’s union committee taught about the church and church fellowship “does not agree” with what Wisconsin’s Adolf Hoenecke taught earlier in the synod’s history. end footnote

Norman Berg, pastor in Plymouth, Michigan, suggested that confusion among delegates might indicate the synod’s presentation was inadequate. Milwaukee pastor Luther Voss doubted that all avenues of negotiation with The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod had been exhausted. But synod’s First Vice President Habeck responded that further discussions would be fruitless. “You reach the point eventually where you don’t edify. You begin to aggravate by continuing to discuss.”

Those who attended the convention remembered that “debate was lengthy and emotions ran high.” Floor Committee number 2 on Doctrinal Matters handed their resolution to delegates on Tuesday afternoon, August 15th. Floor debate continued throughout the afternoon and evening and was resumed at Wednesday morning’s session.

footnote: The following four paragraphs, containing an account of the three days of convention debate regarding Wisconsin’s vote to suspend fellowship, are taken from notes by Wisconsin pastor Victor H. Prange and transcribed in an unpublished paper. Prange cited the substance of each speaker’s statement in quotation marks, although speakers may not have used the exact words in every case and some statements were summaries of their remarks. end footnote

On Wednesday morning, Martin Franzmann, Missouri’s representative to the convention, was asked if Missouri’s current document, “The Theology of Fellowship,” represented a continuation of the historic Synodical Conference position. “Missouri has an out-going impulse to seek others—above all Lutherans.” Joint prayer with other Lutherans—even those not in fellowship with the Synodical Conference—“was not in principle ruled out.” Wisconsin’s Carl Lawrenz responded, “Prayer fellowship is ruled out with those who are persistent errorists. We find Walther in harmony with our principles.” Franzmann was then asked, “Does the Missouri Synod maintain that it may pray with persistent errorists?” Franzmann answered, “No. But we will meet and pray with anyone who is ready to be bound by the Word of God.”

As debate continued on Wednesday afternoon, other Wisconsin pastors challenged their synod’s fellowship position statement. “I question the clearness of the presentation,” said one, and another asked, “Did Missouri know what we meant by our Theses?” Yet another asked, “How can we ever pray with others if every prayer is church fellowship?” Lawrenz replied that joint prayer was ruled out “only with persistent errorists.”

John Daniel, representative of the Slovak Synod, said, “It is not a question as to whether you have adopted or will adopt these theses. Rather, the question is, how were the theses used?” Wisconsin had presented them to other members of the Synodical Conference as “the final, complete, scriptural, authoritative word.” Wisconsin said, “Either accept this principle or show us where we are wrong.” Daniel saw Wisconsin’s theses as inflexible and intimidating, because “they were presented as the final word.” At this, one observer recalled that President Naumann protested Daniel’s interpretation of Wisconsin’s theses and “lectured Daniel about abusing the privilege of the floor.”

Debate on Thursday began about 1:45 P.M. “We chose to use the word suspend rather than terminate,” explained Werner Franzmann, chairman of Floor Committee number 2, “because we wanted to use the less harsh term, hoping that Missouri will return. This is a real suspension.” Martin Franzmann was asked whether Wisconsin’s unit concept went beyond the Synodical Conference position. Martin Franzmann replied that he felt Wisconsin’s position was “too pointed” and “too one-sided.” As the vote drew closer, a lay delegate protested, “Pure doctrine is being over-stressed at the point of preaching the Gospel. Which is the worse sin—to convey an impression of religious snobbery or to join in communal prayer with others who are more than likely better Christians than we are?”

In “an 11th hour motion,” Milwaukee pastor James Schaefer urged that the vote to break fellowship be submitted to a referendum, but his motion was tabled. In a prepared statement, Schaefer said he had listened “to the contradictory counsel” offered by “men of equal stature, of equal acumen, of equal scholarship, equally devoted to the Holy Scriptures and to the Lutheran Confessions.” But after reviewing the decisions of Wisconsin conventions back to 1953, Schaefer insisted:

There is nothing in the past history of this controversy that would tend to indicate to me that today, 4:30 P.M., August 17th, 1961, and no other day, we must break fellowship with the Missouri Synod. The case today is no more hopeless, no more hopeful—than it ever was before.

One thing keeps going through my mind at this historic moment. The words of a man to his colleagues who also stood at a crossroads. He said: “I beseech you, brethren, by the bowels of Jesus Christ, bethink that you may be mistaken.” . . .

What I say next is a word spoken to me alone, but I share it with you for what it is worth. It is not an indictment of one single pastor, teacher or layman in our Synod. I speak against the resolution because I hear my Lord Jesus say to me as emphatically as he said it to the first century Pharisees: “Go and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” He said it once, He said it twice (Matt. 9:13; and 12:7). . . . Because I hear my Lord say to me, “With what judgment you judge, you shall be judged; and with what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you again.”

Schaefer proposed that one more effort be made: Several professors from the synod’s seminary and two colleges, as well as several parish pastors, should be called together to “forget historic positions” and “all dogmatic presuppositions” to study the doctrine of church fellowship once more, and to “freely air their study” in the synod’s conferences and districts “until we are all persuaded by the blessed word that this is our answer to the ecumenical call.”

But no additional committees were appointed, and no further studies were conducted. A 72 percent majority voted to suspend fellowship with Missouri. “Many were still on the list to speak when debate was cut off,” recalled one observer, and “many of those were against the break. The vote would perhaps have been closer if this resolution had been debated longer.” While Lawrenz, Naumann, and Werner Franzmann appeared to be in favor of the split, “the majority of advisory delegates would perhaps have voted against the suspension” and “the World Mis- sion Board was solidly against [it] and registered their dissent.” One pastor in favor of the break urged, “Don’t be afraid of the consequences. Are we going to do what God’s Word says?” A lay-man responded, “Do we only have those paragons of interpreters who are only right? Our people are against it.” Two Wisconsin Synod pastors were even reported as announcing that some congregations might continue fellowship with Missouri “on an individual basis.

footnote: Zion Church in Hartland, Wisconsin, was reported as having voted to “remain in church fellowship” with the Missouri Synod even as it planned to continue to “fully support the mission program of the Wisconsin Synod.” A spokesman for the congregation maintained that “an action as far-reaching as this should have been put to a referendum of the Wisconsin Synod’s congregations” because it was “a matter of fellowship rather than a doctrinal disagreement or dispute,” St. Peter’s Church in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, voted to ignore the synod’s resolution, according to an Associated Press report in the Wisconsin State Journal. The congregation urged the synod to reconsider its position and to “remain in the Synodical Conference to help preserve conservative Lutheranism.” end footnote

A particularly painful memory for many, long after the vote was taken and the convention past, was the sight of Martin Franzmann, raised in the Wisconsin Synod but now a professor at Concordia Seminary, upholding Missouri’s position, urging Wisconsin to be more patient, and finally giving “a lengthy, impassioned good-bye speech” to the delegates.

footnote: Franzmann was remembered as having said at Missouri’s 1956 convention, “To be always right is not the ultimate grace.” Whether said in reference to his present or his former synod, the comment revealed Franzmann’s distress at attitudes that were manifested during the intersynodical disagreements. end footnote

It was easier for a small church body like the Wisconsin Synod to take a firm stand, Martin said, but difficult, if not impossible, to do the same when a synod became the size of Missouri.

footnote: American Lutheran Church union proponent E. C. Fendt remarked that “the man who suffered more pain and anguish than any other in my acquaintance” over the intersynodical strife was Martin Franzmann. Finding himself out of synodical fellowship with most of his family members, classmates, and associates “weighed heavily on his mind and heart.” Franzmann told Fendt about his son, still attending a Wisconsin Synod college, who would no longer have prayer fellowship with his father when he came home from school. As tears fell from his eyes, Franzmann said, “There must be something wrong with the synodical resolutions when they destroy prayer fellowship in the family,” end footnote

At the other microphone was Martin’s brother Werner Franzmann, chairman of Floor Committee number 2, responding that Wisconsin had “gone the long mile of Christian love” with Missouri but “today a sterner kind of admonition and love is required.” A third brother, Gerhard, remembered, “Since I loved and admired both [my] brothers, it was a very wrenching experience. I was opposed to severing the ties and said so openly on the floor,” a position that “was not fully shared by my colleagues” at Northwestern College.

footnote: Respondent 66, in a follow-up interview, recalled that after these floor deliberations, he bumped into Martin Franzmann, his former professor at Watertown, in a hallway outside the convention sessions. “How can you do what you’re doing,” the pastor asked, “and take the stand you take?” He clearly remembered Franzmann’s answer: “You can’t play with coal without getting your hands dirty.” end footnote

More than 35 years later, Wendland reflected, “Although I still can’t agree with the reason given in 1961 for the split of the Synodical Conference, I can see the justification for it as having been inevitable.” In 1962, Wendland was called to be a missionary to Africa, where he remained 16 years until accepting a call to teach at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. There he was a colleague of Carl Lawrenz. “I have the highest respect for [Lawrenz’s] theological acumen. He is not a legalist by any means. In this particu- lar matter we just don’t see things the same way.”

“What Will Sophie Think?”

In the first issue of the Northwestern Lutheran following the convention resolution, Carleton Toppe predicted that the synod’s decision “has been and will continue to be regarded as hopelessly reactionary by the great majority of Americans.

The public press and most of the religious press will deplore the action as an expression of a “traditionalism” that cannot face up to living in the present. It will come as no surprise if liberal Lutheran periodicals label our Scripture-based theology and practice Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon to characterize it as belonging to the dim past, but impossible and ridiculous in the “enlightened” present.

Although Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon never surfaced, Toppe’s prediction proved to be accurate.

The Lutheran Beacon, official publication of the Slovak Synod, called August 17th “a sad day for the Synodical Conference.” Although the Slovaks’ relationship with Missouri would remain unaffected, the Beacon was “dismayed” at Wisconsin’s decision. “We cannot impugn the sincerity of the Wisconsin delegates and officials” who voted to suspend fellowship, Beacon editor J. J. Vajda wrote, but “we cannot see that this decision was the best one.” There were “sins to be repented of in both camps.”

Missouri president Behnken called Wisconsin’s decision “regrettable” because of the repercussions it would cause among other Lutheran groups and because it came despite so much doctrinal agreement that existed between the synods. On the day after the vote, Behnken maintained, “Our disagreements are in the practical field, the application of principles,” a viewpoint he repeated the next month. “We are honestly convinced that we and the Wisconsin Synod are agreed in practically every doctrine of Holy Writ. Our disagreements lie in the practical application of the principles rather than in the principles themselves.”

While Wisconsin had broken relations with Missouri, Behnken announced, “Our Synod has not suspended fellowship” with Wisconsin. “We do not wish to sever relations, but continue to work toward agreement also in the theology of fellowship.” Added Missouri’s first vice president Oliver Harms, “Whoever withdraws from the Synodical Conference would no longer be in the Conference. We, however, have not withdrawn. We have done all within our power to keep the Conference intact.”

A more emotional reaction came in an editorial “What Will Sophie Think?” in the Lutheran Witness. Told that the suspension was based on those who “cause divisions and offenses:

Sophie will ask herself, “Just who is causing what divisions?” She will remember from Bible class that offense is not only given but also taken. Who decides these things? Who determines when “they” and “their” and “them” in the Romans passage have identified the same antecedents today—with our 250-plus denominations, our various brands of Lutheranism, our synods? . . .

Perhaps Sophie will pick up hope when she reads that the Wisconsin Synod “stands ready to resume discussions” with the Missouri Synod “with the aim of restoring fellowship relations.” But then she will find this readiness tightly restricted by the Wisconsin view of fellowship: “these discussions to be conducted outside the framework of fellowship.” Sophie won’t believe her eyes.

“You mean to tell me,” she will probably say to her hus- band, “that when members of two synods meet to study God’s Word, they can’t pray together?”

Missouri’s American Lutheran struck a similar tone, calling it “disturbing” that practical issues such as prayer fellowship, Boy Scouts, and relationships with other Lutherans “should bring about a break between two synods so closely united in doctrine.”

But Missouri’s Confessional Lutheran charged that the Lutheran Witness “ostensibly bewails but actually revels” in “Sophie’s” confusion. If she was confused, it may be because her information about the intersynodical conflict was “limited to the ‘nice’ versions” of it provided by the Witness. The editorial in question would hardly remove her confusion but would confirm her conviction “that her uninformed resentments are quite justified.” The Witness article implied that “those Wisconsin flint-hearts are cruel indeed” to apply Romans 16:17 “to ‘our’ oh-so-very-modern darlings.” By its “soggy logic,” the Witness couldn’t even apply that verse to Roman Catholics, and finally it can be applied to no one.

“The Witness has a perfect right to appeal to Scripture and sound logic in support of its honest convictions,” the Confessional Lutheran author concluded. “But it has no right to foment and exploit popular sentiment and prejudice by the presentation of stultifying emotional balderdash.”

Christianity Today introduced its report on Wisconsin’s severance of fellowship with Missouri with the sentence, “Creeping liberalism within The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod constituency was dealt a dramatic rebuke this month by a sister synod with which it has cooperated for nearly 90 years.” A reader responded in the letters column that it was not “creeping liberalism” in Missouri but “creeping Christianity” in Wisconsin that caused the split. While Wisconsin objected to Scouting and the chaplaincy, “Missouri refuses to ‘creep’ along. The King’s business requires haste.”

To M. A. Zimmermann, writing in the Protes’tant journal Faith–Life, the break in fellowship was “a fleshly, unholy break,” born out of “the Wisconsin Synod’s legalism, which is always the product of false orthodoxy.” Zimmermann was crit- ical of all the synods involved. Wisconsin’s “destiny under the judgment of God” was “to misuse the Word of God and to choose the wrong course in every crisis” and thus “hasten its own spiritual integration.” Missouri was “paralyzed by its own spiritual disintegration” and “lacked the moral strength” to come to its sister synod’s aid to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Even those “who seceded from the Wisconsin Synod or will yet secede in protest,” the Church of the Lutheran Confession and others, refuse to recognize God’s judgment and “fritter away their remaining strength in the pursuit of their pet dogmas.”

Zimmermann painted a lamentable picture of future intersynodical relations:

Henceforth no mother of the Missouri Synod can be sponsor of her own grandchild born in the Wisconsin Synod. In one family, a Missouri Synod brother can henceforth no longer commune at the Lord’s Table with his own brother, who happens to belong to the Wisconsin Synod. When the married children of a family who have joined the Missouri Synod because of the convenience of proximity, return home to the table of their parents, who belong to the Wisconsin Synod, they must now by your decree refrain from prayer fellowship with their own parents, who led them into the way of faith. Or will you not expect your own people to observe the separation you have so solemnly declared?

footnote: Zimmermann’s characterization overstated and misrepresented the Wisconsin position. By his own admission, Zimmermann’s remarks must be understood in the context of the grievances against the Wisconsin Synod on the part of the Protes’tant Conference, which had “for more than thirty years been made to suffer such indecencies and immoral practices at the hands of the body.” The Wisconsin Synod “in its day of visitation was a city set on a hill” when J. P. Koehler and Wisconsin’s Quartalschrift gave light to both synods. But when Koehler was ousted and the Protes’tants expelled, Missouri “took the stand-offish attitude” and refused to become involved. Thus the deserved judgment of God fell on both synods. end footnote

For the Milwaukee Lutheran, Wisconsin’s 1961 convention proceedings “were not always a pretty sight.” While some delegates said, “They continue to practice fellowship with persistent errorists,” and “I know we are right because, now, more than ever before, we have more from Missouri on the side of the Wisconsin position,” others said, “We’re hypocrites . . . self-righteous . . . for saying only we have the pure doctrine,” and, “The case is no more hopeless, or hopeful, than ever before.” Delegates in favor of suspending fellowship “often spoke of love in impassioned tones—love for God, the Scriptures, and Missouri,” but “their tone, manner, and gesticulations gave the impression of anything but love.

Eloquent oratory couldn’t hide the intense feeling and bitterness obviously felt by many of the delegates. Many played their role of righteous defenders of the maligned Scriptures to the hilt; others took them to task sharply (and justly, we believe) for setting themselves up as judges.

The contradictory end result . . . left the impression that, once again, Milwaukee has been the scene of a convention of which Lutherans could not be proud.

Two years later, after Wisconsin resolved to leave the Synodical Conference, Time magazine reported, “The break with Missouri leaves the nation’s fourth largest Lutheran Church as isolated as when it began,” and called Wisconsin “the most rigidly fundamentalist of all Lutheran groups.” Insisting “we aren’t ogres,” James Schaefer nonetheless replied that until a change came in Missouri, “We cannot pray with them, we cannot work with them, we cannot worship with them and, by extension, with anyone else who does.”

End Chapter 4