A Tale of Two Synods Conclusion Part 1

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“Are we forever to be isolated,” asked Theodore Graebner in March 1950, “forever to deny fellowship to Lutherans who teach as we do?” Recalling the Wisconsin Synod’s criticisms of the 1938 Union Resolutions and anticipating Wisconsin’s rejection of the Common Confession, Graebner charged that for the past dozen years “not one good thing has been said about the other Lutherans by the critics of the Union resolutions.” In Wisconsin’s Quartalschrift, all other Lutherans “are simply treated as depraved, disloyal, unionistic, modernistic offal from the Lutheran Church.” Any word of commendation or charity for a theological “opponent” would “be stigmatized as rank betrayal.”

The very word fellowship had been given “an unusual connotation” among Wisconsin Synod Lutherans. Their pastors refused to join Missouri pastors at the Lord’s Table because a Missouri pastor’s congregation maintains a Boy Scout group. “What is there left of fellowship?” The only solution, as Graebner saw it, was that the Wisconsin Synod “resign its membership in the Synodical Conference.”

This proposal will sound less sensational when we remember that the Synodical Conference convention of 1946 had before it a memorial that it be disbanded on account of the strife which exists in its midst. . . . The memorial might have carried in 1946 if the condition had been made that the bond of fellowship be retained—in such measure as may be said to exist today. I refer to conditions known to every Missouri Synod pastor West of Lake Michigan who has not spent his synodical life in a trunk. Largely, Wisconsin Synod conferences are practicing selective fellowship, communing at the altar with us in some conferences, but not in others. Granting fellowship to some members who come with a Missouri letter of transfer, but refusing those who have in their family a Boy Scout.

The advantage for Wisconsin would be that it would “not have to hold itself responsible for [Missouri’s] tolerance of Boy Scouts, of Army and Navy chaplains, or any other matter.” Though not necessarily calling for a “divorce” between the synods, Graebner suggested a “new arrangement” similar to that in which “husbands sometimes insert a note in the county paper, ‘After this date I am no longer responsible for my wife’s debts.’ ”

footnote: An editorial in the Lutheran Outlook agreed with Graebner’s proposal, though it recognized such a turn of events was unlikely to occur. If Wisconsin would not depart, the Outlook suggested, Missouri could pull out of the Synodical Conference and form a new association with the other major groups. end footnote

At the time, Graebner’s proposal was regarded as improper and even offensive. Less than a dozen years later, however, Wisconsin’s withdrawal from the Synodical Conference proved to be the only satisfactory solution to the ongoing intersynodical strife.

footnote: Edmund Reim admitted at the time that peace could be “purchased at the price of surrender,” but such a peace would constitute disobedience to the Lord’s Word. “That is a cost that none of us will want to assume—not even for the sake of perpetuating the Synodical Conference.” end footnote

As Norman Madson remarked in 1954, what occurred regarding the Common Confession was “not an accident,” but in an oft-quoted remark of Edmund Reim, “It follows a pattern.” We can all grant, Madson wrote, that one might inadvertently do something he would not want to be held accountable for when its full implications have been made clear to him. But when one becomes part of a movement that “in all its disturbing aspects is ever moving toward ‘the left,’ you have a valid reason for holding that the Kolonne-links maneuver is more dear to the marchers than is the Kolonne-rechts.”

A solitary bird warbling his little song

Picking up where “Sophie” left off the year before, “Imaprea Chertoo” called it “the understatement of the decade” to say there were “strained relationships” in the Synodical Conference.

Some cliques do not believe in Boy Scouts and do not want a chaplain available for men in the armed forces. They do not even want to pray with others who are sinners but who believe in the [same?] Christ. They have the privilege of feeling that way, but they want all of us to eat what they eat and think what they think. We don’t, and they pulled out.

Much as it was Jesus’ “passion” that there be one flock and one shepherd, Imaprea Chertoo concluded, “We don’t have to devise an arsenal of guns to put on a man’s back to make sure that he stays in the Christian family.”

In an extended reply three months later, James P. Schaefer, director of public information for the Wisconsin Synod, insisted “there was more behind our August resolutions [to break fellowship] than a spoiled child picking up his marbles and going home.” Schaefer repeated—perhaps more winsomely—Wisconsin’s standard rationale for its opposition to Scouting and the chaplaincy. He criticized Imaprea Chertoo’s statement about prayer fellowship as “an unduly short sentence to cover a complicated situation.” There are “many gradations between persistent errorists and Christians whose faith is weak or uninformed, or even misinformed.” Some may by their confession reveal themselves as persistent errorists, “but there are many other Christians who confess their Lord and Savior whom we cannot so identify. In these instances, each situation must be considered by itself.”

Through years of what proved to be fruitless negotiation, Schaefer said:

Our approach may not have always been with the proper regard for Christian humility—and for this we have repented a thousand times—but in the matter of the life and death of precious souls committed to our charge indifference ought to be deplored rather than zeal.

Luther has said that the Christian is a solitary bird, sitting somewhere on a rooftop, warbling his little song. We are solitary, but we fervently hope and pray that the winds will waft our little song to the four corners of the world.

Missouri was once a church body that “rejected the thought of doing joint church work and of establishing sealed degrees of fellowship with other Lutheran bodies before full agreement in doctrine was reached,” but now “a new spirit reigns in that synod” as strange opinions are now “granted rights alongside truth.” The Wisconsin Synod had severed its fellowship with The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod on the basis of Romans 16:17, and “the Missouri Synod has rejected this indictment.”

In 1964, in an open letter “To One Ere Now a Brother,” Carleton Toppe called it “public knowledge that you have abjured our communion and have cast in your lot with those who say we are wrong in our confessional stand.” A Scripture-based stand “was once important to you,” but—reversing the roles Missouri and Wisconsin played in the 1961 convention—Toppe said that now “you left us, I fear, because we are too ‘conservative’ and too ‘narrow-minded.’” But in the almost three years since Wisconsin’s departure, “unionistic practices are more widespread” and “doctrinal experimentation is being accepted” within other Lutheran church bodies Missouri now openly courted. “One step after another is being taken toward intimate ties with Lutherans whose errors you once saw clearly.”

Siegbert Becker, active in the debate over Martin Scharlemann’s study papers, left Missouri for Wisconsin in 1963. He wrote in 1965:

[I joined the Wisconsin Synod] because it was important to me to be a member of a church in which my own faith was not assailed constantly by men who outwardly passed as brethren but who, by denying the inerrancy of Scripture and other fundamental doctrines of the church, were tearing down the foundations on which all Christian faith must rest—the words and promises of God.

In these and other statements, Wisconsin sought to demonstrate that it exited the Synodical Conference entirely because of Lutheran Church Missouri Synod doctrinal aberrations. Writing in 1977, Edward Fredrich was convinced that Wisconsin’s judgment “must have been dulled or duped to have permitted the sorry situation to drag on so long.” At the time “there just wasn’t a clear picture to be viewed.” Wisconsin’s “inclination was to blame the errors on a leftist and vocal few.”

In 1979, Myron Maltz concluded that “the termination of fellowship with the Missouri Synod by the Wisconsin Synod was inevitable.” The final days of the synods’ shared history were plagued by “continuous areas of disagreement” in matters of church practice. “To make matters worse each Synod viewed its course of action to be proper and in accord with the truth of God’s Word.” George Gude is undoubtedly correct in saying that “what destroyed the Synodical Conference was the uncertainty within the Wisconsin and Norwegian Synods regarding the direction of the Missouri Synod.”

footnote: Gude considered Wisconsin frustration “certainly understandable” in view of Missouri’s “paternalistic denials” and its “apparently deliberate attempts to slant or suppress the evidence” of synodical change. “Wisconsin was ultimately forced to conclude that the representatives from Missouri either were incredibly ignorant of the state of affairs in their own churches or were deliberately glossing [over] the troublesome differences and making promises they could not, or did not intend to, keep.” end footnote

Betrayed and hurt

But Gude is also surely correct that there was “a deep sense on the part of the Wisconsin and Norwegian Synods that they had been betrayed and hurt by the Missouri Synod.”14 The American Lutheran acknowledged as much in June 1954, remarking that Wisconsin’s complaints against Missouri “reveal hurt feelings that are not unimportant to the Missouri Synod” and that “Wisconsin has some ground for its hurt feelings.”

footnote: The “ground” the American Lutheran referred to was “the original impetus” Wisconsin had given to the development of the Intersynodical Theses of the 1920s, contrasted to its lack of involvement in discussions regarding the Common Confession.

While extending sympathy for the hurt feelings in Wisconsin, that very American Lutheran article offers ample evidence of the condescension and minimizing of issues the Wisconsin Synod found most hurtful and most frustrating. The writer dismissed the controversy between the synods as “just a little bonfire in our backyard,” even though he knew what he said would be “resented by those in Wisconsin and Missouri who regard the issues that have been raised as the most important to confront Lutheranism since the Reformation.” Upon further study, pastors and laymen in both synods would “regard some of these issues as manufactured.” Wisconsin’s lack of involvement in the development of the Common Confession, as well as its rejection of the Confession, is characterized as “the result of misunderstandings, largely personal rather than doctrinal in character.” The American Lutheran praised the “excellent qualities” of Wisconsin’s ministerium and voiced confidence in “the good sense of the Wisconsin Synod laity,” yet it characterized Wisconsin’s leadership as “impetuous” and its concerns as “rather insignificant matters.” end footnote

One obvious example was William Schaefer’s 1945 reaction to the announcement that the Missouri Synod had the second largest number of Scout troops of any Lutheran synod in the United States: “We were shocked beyond measure,” Schaefer wrote. “To publish such a tabulation and commitment” when the Scouting movement was “causing untold confusion and offense” was “most shocking.” It did “not seem to be a fair thing to do” and it was “not brotherly.” The Witness article hurt “beyond the ability of expressing it.” Schaefer “deeply deplored the incident,” and was “sick at heart.”

Following the 1952 Synodical Conference convention, Erling Ylvisaker of the Norwegian Synod, though protesting he did not speak in bitterness, insisted that if there was to be peace between brothers, “the big brother cannot say to his little brother—least of all in church work: ‘I asked you for your honest opinion and judgment but upon hearing what you have to say, I disagree with you and therefore I will refuse to listen.’” Though he had “lived some years” and had “some varied experiences,” Ylvisaker said, “Never before have we witnessed such adamant closing of all doors and windows.”

Missouri’s publication of A Fraternal Word, meant to offer a defense of its position regarding the controverted issues, also provoked hurt and betrayal. Wisconsin’s Standing Committee on Church Union requested the opportunity to study A Fraternal Word before it was to be distributed to Wisconsin Synod members, and the committee assumed this request had been granted. When Missouri subsequently distributed A Fraternal Word to some Wisconsin members and published it in the Lutheran Witness before giving Wisconsin’s Standing Committee the opportunity to study it, Wisconsin leaders felt they had been double-crossed.

Because of this incident, Wisconsin Synod pastor Gervasius Fischer in Mankato, Minnesota, urged his district president to petition the synod’s Conference of Presidents to apply Matthew 7:15, (“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves”), to Missouri and to deny them permission to speak at the Wisconsin Synod’s October special convention. Missouri had revealed itself as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” with statements of half truth, spreading their confusion also to Wisconsin. In a separate mailing to Wisconsin’s district presidents on September 8th, 1953, Fischer wrote, “Having had dealings with Missouri’s liberals, [I] have found them to have become false brethren, and false brethren are never honest with those who threaten an exposure of their dishonesty.”

When Missouri representatives did, in fact, attend Wisconsin’s special convention on October 8th, 1953, they promised they would correct what Wisconsin regarded as Missouri misquotations and misrepresentations of their position concerning the Common Confession. Upon reading A Fraternal Word, Wisconsin considered Missouri’s corrections “totally inadequate, coming as notes on the last page of the document.” The corrections were “limited to technical details of printing and quotation,” ignoring “the bearing which these misquotations have on the substance of our argument.”

footnote: Reim called A Fraternal Word “unfair and misleading, not necessarily by the deliberate intent of its authors, but in actual effect.” A Fraternal Word “answered us by misrepresenting us.” Anyone reading A Fraternal Word without examining Wisconsin’s 1953 convention resolutions would “get an utterly false picture” of Wisconsin’s position: “The case seems so simple. Wisconsin makes its requests. Missouri meets them. Therefore Wisconsin must be utterly unreasonable still to complain after so much has been done to meet its objections. That is the impression which is created.” While only a few in Wisconsin were aware of this “misquoting and misrepresenting,” yet A Fraternal Word was widely disseminated through Missouri’s Lutheran Witness. Reim asked, “Is this ‘fraternal candor’?” end footnote

That same fall, Edmund Reim reported an incident “that happened not many years ago” in which a Missouri Synod spokesman delivered what Reim considered “a very strange pronouncement.” Noting the difference in size between the two synods, the Missouri man suggested “rather condescendingly” that Wisconsin was smaller because it had been “chiefly concerned about conserving the Gospel,” while “Missouri was busy spreading the Gospel.” Reim replied, “It must be granted the we are spending disproportionately much time and effort on keeping and defending our doctrinal heritage, perhaps at the expense of our mission effort. Let it be remembered, however, that this is not by our choice, but by a stern necessity that has been forced upon us.”

footnote: Edward Borchert, Missouri Synod pastor in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, expressed a similar viewpoint in a letter to his Wisconsin Synod brother-in-law several months after the split. “When a church body expands like ours has,” Borchert wrote, “you are bound to have problems. The Gospel must be preached and you cannot sit back and be a watchdog and then bark at everything that goes by either. We will make mistakes and we will be the first to acknowledge it. Think of the growth of our church in the past ten years. We did not grow by sitting still and watching, faultfinding and griping. The record of the Little Norwegian Synod and the Wisconsin Synod has been written. . . . We have been on the defensive long enough or much too long. . . . I think it can be said to our credit that we are trying to line up with those we can walk with and join our hands in our struggle against Satan and his forces. Some are straining gnats and swallowing camels.” end footnote

At the 1954 Synodical Conference convention, in discussing the Missouri Synod’s defense of its practices, E. E. Kowalke said:

According to the essays in this book, these acts of the Missouri Synod are in no sense unionistic. They must necessarily, then, be right and holy, done in obedience to the will and Word of God. The Wisconsin Synod’s objections and warnings, on the other hand, are referred to as “working for a separation,” as a “rush toward separation,” as though all the painstaking admonition since 1938 were a heedless rush into separation, an unholy thing that presumes to criticize the righteous dealings of the Missouri Synod in respect to union with other churches, to working arrangements with scouting, military chaplaincy, and so on.