A Tale of Two Synods Conclusion Part 2

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Following the 1954 Synodical Conference convention, Julian Anderson wrote that most discouraging “was not so much the lack of progress” but “the obvious indifference of spirit displayed by the delegates of the Missouri and Slovak Synods.” As discussions continued “it became increasingly apparent that the two groups looked upon the Scriptures in a different spirit” and “no longer thought alike or spoke the same language.” It would take “a miracle almost as great as the conversion of Nineveh” to heal the breach growing between the synods.
Survey responses from Wisconsin Synod pastors also revealed feelings of hurt and betrayal from the Missouri Synod. “There was a ‘cocksure’ opinion that emphasized THE Missouri Synod,” came one answer. Another said, “When at Mequon and we had correspondence from St. Louis, they would address us with lower case letters.”

Another respondent recalled:

At conventions [in the 1950s] when our synod was tearing its guts apart over the fellowship issue, Missouri would send two representatives to our conventions who were not able to really assure us of anything. At the same time they sent 18 representatives to the American Lutheran Church convention. One had the impression that our fellowship with Missouri was small potatoes compared with what other synods could offer. The Missouri Synod did not seem at all concerned about our distress.

One respondent remembered the remark of a Nebraska Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod pastor: “Our synod was like a little rowboat tied to an ocean liner that was getting into dangerous waters.” Another recalled Missouri “smugness” that seemed to say, “Whatever we do must be OK.” Yet another remembered “a reluctance,” almost disdain, for “what little Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod [had] to say.” Reflecting on the escalating disturbances of the 1950s, another concluded, “We couldn’t help but think that we were being jilted by a former very dear friend. We seemed to be too small for them to bother with.”

Wisconsin was perhaps also responding to a change in Missouri that was strikingly obvious yet difficult to pinpoint. “The common perception in my experience was that Missourians away from the heartland, both East and West, were more influenced by ecumenism and higher criticism,” one man observed, adding that this may have occurred “because of isolation and a determination to break free of stuffy doctrinal restraints, to ‘play with the big dogs’ (nicer than we thought) in the denominations.”

footnote: Wisconsin’s Karl Krauss remarked in 1956: “The American Lutheran has for quite some time exuded and promoted a liberalistic and unionistic doctrinal and practical theology.” Although subscribers and supporters of the magazine lived throughout the United States, the perception remained that such tendencies were more prominent in areas outside Missouri’s heartland. end footnote

By the 1940s, “Missouri was extremely conscious of its public image,” noted another, while still another detected in the 1950s that Missouri exhibited “a strong concern about their Public Relations or public image. They wanted to be and be looked on as one of the major American denominations.”

footnote: Some Missourians expressed this same concern as early as 1945: “A few years ago things still stood different with us. We were humble. It mattered little to us how the world, the world at large, the senses of which are blinded, judged our church and our work.” Formerly “it was a matter of indifference to us whether much or little was said or written concerning our work, our task as a church.” The Missouri Synod “quietly carried on [its] work” and made no ado about it, did not boast with figures and successes.” Now “the mountebank tone which our publicity has assumed” has become “excessive in heat but deficient in light. Every wholesome Lutheran sensibility must rise up against the effort to train our lay people to court the praise of uninformed and unbelieving journalists.” Even Missouri pastors were saying, “‘We count for something too! We have become prominent!’” end footnote

By contrast, Wisconsin’s disinterest in, and even distrust of, favorable publicity is readily apparent in a commentary by Egbert Schaller, responding to a favorable characterization of the synod in an editorial in the New Ulm, Minnesota, Daily News following the synod’s 1951 convention. “We are able to quote the approving words with good grace,” wrote Schaller, because “the testimony of the Daily News was neither expected nor solicited.” Schaller considered it “characteristic” of his synod that “we do not desire to have our virtues extolled, nor do we seek to try our case in the public press.” Though not specifically naming Missouri, Schaller charged that “there are church bodies who live by the publicity they can achieve, sensational, sordid, or otherwise.” Wisconsin usually found itself embarrassed by a favorable press because “the friendliest appraisal of our Synod on the outside rarely reveals an understanding of the real character of Synod’s pronouncements and objectives.”

footnote: James P. Schaefer recalled that Wisconsin’s leadership in the 1950s and 1960s “felt that synodical affairs were private, family matters and it was reluctant to discuss them with the press.” Schaefer acknowledged that this mindset “forced reporters to seek information about us wherever they could find it,” and the resulting press coverage “was often incomplete or garbled.” end footnote

Still another detected “a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo” (by which he meant “a confessional Lutheran church with growth determined by the Spirit”) and witnessed instead “a desire to become ‘big’ like the other Lutheran churches.” Missouri seemed “embarrassed by its immigrant, parochial status,” feeling “it was entitled to a larger role on the Lutheran stage.” Said one more, “I have never got past the sense that [Missouri] wanted to stop being ‘immigrants,’ ‘different,’ ‘strict,’ and start being ‘American,’ ‘Protestants,’ ‘accepted.’ ” Elmer Kiessling put it, “An increasing number of Missouri Lutherans believed in what Pope John later called aggiornamento or accommodation to the needs of the modern era.”

Such observations echoed comments by E. P. Schulze, pastor of The Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Peetskill, New York, writing to Christianity Today in November 1960. The Missouri Synod appeared to him altogether different than it had in 1926, when, in an American Mercury article, he “doled out grudging praise” to Missouri for its “firm conservative position” and its “separated stand.”

footnote: Schulze’s praise was “grudging” indeed. He credited the Missouri Synod with being “keen on orthodoxy” and “the most bellicose of the Lutheran organizations today.” The synod was the same in 1926 as it had been at Walther’s time. “Rationalization of doctrine and laxity of practice has always been violently opposed by its leaders.” end footnote

Now, with some of Missouri’s “prominent professors” being accused of heresy, its clergy appearing “confused or indifferent in doctrinal matters,” and its laymen “grieved and disturbed,” Schulze wondered if he could still praise Missouri for its doctrine or its stand.

Getting to causes, Schulze warned that Missouri must be on guard against “the pride and pleasure of acquaintanceship. . . .

In Germany, our fathers’ principles kept them aloof from errorists, and by their persecutions the false teachers, in turn, kept our fathers humble. Later in America language isolated them, and their foreign ways caused them some embarrassment. True, they were for the most part scholars and gentlemen of culture. Many of them read their Hebrew and Greek Testament daily, and some could even converse in Latin. When they essayed to speak English, however, they could never be sure that people were not inwardly smiling at them for turning Poughkeepsie into “Bogibsi” or announcing to the congregation that they were going to “make a preachment.”

Such factors of safety no longer exist. We are now in the main stream of American life. In our desire to be good fellows, we may play a round of golf with the priest or have lunch with the rabbi. There is no harm in it, perhaps, and we may even accomplish a great deal of good, but, aside from missionary implications, should we get chummy with a Presbyterian cleric across the street who does not believe in the Virgin Birth or hobnob with a Methodist dominie who has discarded the deity of Christ?

“The right thing to do”

There were “prophets of doom” who predicted separation from The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod would spell the demise of the Wisconsin Synod. One survey respondent felt the break “would have come sooner by at least 2-3 years if the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod men opposed to leaving had not kept up the litany that ‘Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod is too small to go it alone,’ and ‘what Missouri is doing is not all that bad.’ ” Richard Jungkuntz announced dramatically just prior to the 1961 convention vote to break fellowship, “Brethren, it is one minute to twelve for the Wisconsin Synod.” Fears were voiced that Wisconsin “in Linus- like fashion” would take its “doctrinal security blanket of anti- Scouting/chaplaincy/ecumenism/theological conservatism and sit in the corner sulking.”

In fact, the split proved “far less disastrous than I possibly feared at first, at least outwardly.” Many now view Wisconsin’s decision to go it alone as “all positive,” “one of the best things that ever happened to our Synod,” “the right thing to do,” an action that had a “most salutary” and “very wholesome effect” because it “definitely made Wisconsin stronger.”

Chief among its benefits was that “during the years of controversy, pastors, teachers, and lay members studied the Scriptures. Not that study hadn’t been done before,” but at that time “we were reminded to know what Scriptures taught and how to apply them.” The controversies “compelled our theologians to get back to the Scriptures and do some real digging. Each generation has to take possession of scriptural doctrine for itself, not rely upon the ‘fathers.’ ” It provided “good training” by making pastors and members “fully aware of the importance of God’s Word and their sole reliance upon the promises in the Word for our very existence as a synod.” The break “unified and strengthened our Synod in its present scriptural position.” One pastor, who left the Missouri Synod for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, remembered what “a real treat” it was “to experience the doctrinal unity among the pastors”—something he had not experienced in The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. The break made Wisconsin men “thankful for the faithfulness of Professor Lawrenz” and others like him.

The controversy “cleared the air as to the direction our Synod would take in fellowship matters.” Those who disagreed withdrew from the synod. Their departure “removed much ambiguity” and provided “a catharsis that rid the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod of extremists on both sides,” resulting in “a truer church.” Ended were “the long debates, the uncertainties, the growing antagonisms.” Though they lost cherished friendships and support from Missouri, “when the dust had settled we found a new kind of close fellowship within the Synod.” What emerged was “a deeper fraternal spirit of cooperation among pastors and teachers and laity,” and “more appreciation of whatever fellowship we have.” This fellowship “helped prevent us from being swept up in a tide of false ecumenicity” and “preserved us from the influences of what was once called ‘neo-orthodoxy.’ ”

Before the split, “Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod was somewhat tied to Missouri and the Synodical Conference,” but the break “made Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod more self-sufficient and independent,” more able “to stand on its own two feet.” Realizing that “we could no longer lean on ‘Big Brother’ in our mission priorities, we became more independent in accepting these responsibilities,” which “has worked out to our advantage.” One respondent said, “I believe it helped the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod shed its ugly duckling complex.” Another added, “We no longer have to be the squeaking mouse intimidated by the roaring lion, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.” Breaking with the Missouri Synod was “a wonderful thing. It was as if somebody took our water wings off, and we found out, ‘Hey, I can swim!’ ” The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod “emerged a more viable church body, no longer in Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’ shadow.” Wisconsin had “gained an identity” and could no longer lean, “carefree and comfortable, on Missouri’s strength.”

The break made the Wisconsin Synod more mission minded. Previously it had been “fairly common to let Missouri or the Synodical Conference take care of outreach, while we hung back.” No longer able simply to transfer members to Missouri Synod congregations around the United States, “we became more conscious of outreach opportunities.” Pastors could no longer commend Missouri Synod congregations as “sister congregations” but were compelled to recognize that “without the Synodical Conference the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod would itself be obliged to preach the Gospel to every creature.” The break with The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod “put us all on notice that the remark of one Missouri pastor was very much in place: ‘The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod is holding the reine Lehre (true doctrine), and is sitting on it!’” Wrote Siegbert Becker, “We are only a handful of people, but we are the largest Lutheran body in the world that has remained loyal to the Word in these days of apostasy.” Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod members now had to learn “to pray and to work and to give” as never before. “It is no time for anyone in the Wisconsin Synod to be sitting on his hands,” Becker added, “or on his pocketbook, for that matter.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod became “a haven for those dissatisfied with liberalism” and “a refuge for those outside our circles who were troubled by unionism.” Quite suddenly, the Wisconsin Synod, which for more than a century had been a regional church body, with congregations in only 16 states in 1961, found itself announcing mission openings across the United States.

footnote: Immanuel Frey wrote in 1967: “The Wisconsin Synod today supports missions in places into which it had no intention of going a few years ago. The reports of its mission boards include far-flung place names not heretofore associated with the Wisconsin Synod.” The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod “did not plan this expansion, nor has it been carried out by an aggressive search for new mission opportunities. It has literally been forced upon us, in large part as a direct result of the liberal trends which have developed in once conservative churches.” end footnote

“In our district it provided a new zeal and energy for mission outreach. The Missouri Synod no longer had ‘squatter rights’ to promising fields and areas in which they were located.” Unfortunately, former Missourians who endured the traumatic experience of a church body “changing out from under them” sometimes brought with them to Wisconsin fears that any change in church methodology, however incidental, were bellwethers that “Wisconsin will go just like Missouri did.” One respondent commented on this mixed blessing:

I remember several Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastors coming to our Synod and District, but quite a few of them didn’t come just for doctrinal reasons. We inherited some problem cases with them, so that they didn’t stay in the ministry and were asked to resign. They were of a different spirit.

Wisconsin’s newfound independence fostered theological growth and increased the synod’s appreciation for what it had been given. It helped “develop and utilize more fully the tremendous spiritual gifts with which God blessed Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.” The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod became “better able to distinguish law and gospel in practice.” It “spurred us on to value scholarship,” helping the synod realize that “we had true scholars in our midst.” This in turn stimulated scholarly activity that “strengthened our seminary program” and led to ongoing graduate study at the seminary.57 The break “stimulated publishing.” The Synod “had to prepare [its] own devotional material” and now had more of its people “writing religious books and commentaries on the books of the Bible.” Stewardship programs improved. “We had major building programs undertaken in our Synod’s schools of higher learning,” building a new Lutheran high school in Milwaukee, adding more than a dozen Lutheran high schools and a Lutheran college around the country.

On a more sobering note, one respondent wrote, “If the Wisconsin Synod had not broken when it did, we would have followed the ways of Missouri. Or the Synod would have fallen to pieces.” Had the Wisconsin Synod voted in 1961 to remain in protesting fellowship with Missouri, hundreds of pastors may have left.

Not all viewed the split entirely in positive terms. It “created strained relations among relatives and friends” where there had been strong Wisconsin-Missouri family and working ties. Though acknowledging positive effects for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, one respondent has observed a “de-emphasis on doctrine” and an “increasing emphasis on practical training of pastors as opposed to theological grounding.” Another noted that “humanism began taking over the Missouri Synod, that is, the emphasis on man to do the job, ‘we don’t need God,’” as well as “the use of gimmicks, instead of the Word, to get and keep people in the Church.”

But other respondents wondered whether separation from a “more liberal” Missouri Synod had caused the Wisconsin Synod to become more reactionary. In 1961, seminary president Carl Lawrenz told students that entering the ministry at that time in the synod’s history would “involve special vexations and difficulties.” They would be called upon to exercise “a special measure of patience and forbearance with misunderstandings, unclarities, and criticisms.” Lawrenz urged them to be “all the more on guard against slipping into methods and procedures that are rigoristic and legalistic.” Being separate has made Wisconsin “more independent and aggressive” but also “somewhat more legalistic for a time and negative as a result.

WELS tended to look in some respects to Scripture as a kind of encyclopedia [of doctrine and practice] with the result that every issue had to be tied in a neat ribbon and put in its proper pigeon-hole. WELS has the ability to lay out basic principles very clearly but can get fouled up in application.

footnote: This respondent’s warning echoes a comment James Schaefer was frequently heard to make before his death in 1995: “The Wisconsin Synod has become more rabbinic.” end footnote

Another said: “The pendulum has swung far to the other side concerning Theology of the Word and Theology of Fellowship.”

The same respondent who appreciated that Wisconsin had not been swept into the false ecumenicity of the late 20th century also feared the break from Missouri “has contributed to a spirit of parochialism.”

footnote: A correspondent to Christian News predicted that in 1975 “serious talks with the Wisconsin Synod” would be opened but would not produce “any significant results for hard-core Missourians” because “Wisconsin has enjoyed its autonomy and does not want to become Missouri’s sidekick” once again. end footnote

In elaborating on his comment, this respondent recalled Jesus’ words that his disciples were to be “in the world but not of it,” which the respondent took to mean that “we are to insulate ourselves from the world without isolating ourselves from it.” Parochialism “tends to substitute isolation for insulation, or at least to confuse the two.” He feared that some Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod pastors today regard clergy from other denominations with suspicion, figuring “it’s better to be safe,” and so “we aren’t even cordial [to them], as though cordiality would compromise our confessionalism.”

Another way parochialism manifests itself is in the practical way of recognizing the universal church:

We all confess to believe in the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, but we have a problem translating that belief into any kind of positive action—as though maybe there aren’t any real saints outside the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. In applying fellowship principles, we want to be sure to be on the safe side. We overreact. In doing so, we exhibit behavior that in part gives credence to the stereotype people have of us. We live and work in an ecclesiastical ghetto, and act as though we think that is one of our strengths.

The spirit of parochialism “operates with a ghetto mentality,” which “obscures the love Jesus wants us to have for one another, even for our enemies.”