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In a 1996 essay presented to pastoral conferences in the South Atlantic District, former synod president Carl Mischke remarked on the oft-repeated adage that “the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod is always 20 years behind Missouri.” The person was usually referring to “something in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod that he didn’t like” and would then “point out that he had observed the same thing in Missouri already 20 years earlier.” If the Missouri Synod changed its practice of church fellowship, struggled over the doctrine of Holy Scripture, and succumbed to desires of being a “bigger player” on the American Lutheran scene, and if it is true that “Wisconsin is 20 years behind Missouri,” it would be reasonable to assume—and to fear—that Wisconsin may follow the same path.
But if, by separating from Missouri, the Wisconsin Synod preserved and embraced a more conservative outlook on fellowship and Scripture, then for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod the danger of legalism and a reactionary spirit may be greater than that of following Missouri’s path. Wisconsin’s E. E. Kowalke addressed that very issue in 1956:
Perhaps the greatest danger of all is the danger of resorting to quick legalistic action in dealing with the many practical problems that will have to be solved and that are bound to arise in connection with intermarriage, division of the family into opposing parties, social contacts, business contacts, and even business partnerships. This may sound silly, but in the event of a separation, we may expect such questions as: May I hire a Missourian to work for me? May I invite a Missourian to dinner? May a Wisconsin pastor stop and talk with a Missouri pastor on the street? Should we let our children play with the Missouri neighbor’s children? May our colleges and schools employ Missouri Synod janitors? Should our high schools and colleges schedule basketball games with Missouri Synod schools? Questions like that are going to be asked, because some of them have already been asked. How are they and a hundred more like them, some of them much harder questions, going to be answered? We must not think that if our controversy with Missouri is settled that our troubles will be ended. There is no such thing in church life or any other form of life as the end of troubles, and we don’t look for such a fool’s paradise here on earth.
In 1940, the Norwegian Synod’s George Lillegard observed that “family quarrels are notoriously more bitter, civil wars more bloody” than any other. “So it is, perhaps, not strange that the dissension within the Synodical Conference should wax bitter over a union program which threatens to separate old friends.”
Though probably without knowing it, Lillegard echoed sociologist E. A. Ross, who wrote in 1905, “Conflict is sharpest and most passionate when it comes between those who have been united.” Next to family quarrels, church quarrels “are proverbial for the bitterness they develop.”
The estrangement of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, once her sister in Midwestern American Lutheranism, is now more than four decades old. As time goes by, fewer and fewer members of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod will recall or cherish the fellowship, despite the bitterness in parting, that once was ours with Missouri. One who did remember, and who rose above that bitterness, wrote in 1971:
Many of us have not forgotten our days of brotherhood, when we worshiped in each other’s churches, preached in each other’s pulpits, held joint mission festivals and Reformation rallies, and sang together at Saengerfests. . . .
We who recall what Missouri was and who cherish the faith that many in her churches still cling to, shouldn’t we pray for her in her troubled hour? Pray that she may stand in awe of every syllable and letter that God has inscribed in His Book. Pray that she may place fidelity in eternal truth above concord among her churches, above prestige in her halls of learning, above filial love for the church of her fathers. Pray that she may remember the crown God gave her, and pray that God may keep her for that crown.