By F. Dean Lueking
In an unguarded moment recently I agreed to write this article on a subject of no small scope.
Unguarded, I say, because I’m writing this piece by the seat of my pants while out of the country and away from needed resources for references and documentation. Of necessity, then, I must rely on my memory and write quite subjectively from my experience of Lutheranism as a confessional movement based on my pastoral years in the LCMS from 1954 – 1977 and in the ELCA since. Above all, I write as one pastor to another, greatly blessed through all my pastoral years by the people of Grace Lutheran Church in the Chicago suburb of River Forest. Through them I have seen how a congregation grounds this subject in the immediacies of daily parish life. During the course of my Grace pastorate the congregation granted me several sabbaticals along the way for global visits to experience Lutheranism as a movement in the church catholic. In these past dozen years of post-retirement ministry, Grace congregation has been a continuing spiritual home for my wife and me and helped support our ongoing travels near and far in exploring global Lutheranism as a confessional movement in the church catholic.
My hope, dear reader(s), is that we might make this article something of a joint work in progress. To that end I invite you to add your insight, experience, and critique to what’s offered here. Thereby we can expand one another’s horizon and enhance each other’s pastoral practice in a subject that directly engages us all. If such extended exchange can become a ministry of mutual conversation and consolation then it will be anything but armchair gossip on how good things used to be and how dismal things currently are. Best of all, it can lead to broader, deeper equipping of the laity we serve as they live out their daily calling in the world with others in the church catholic. Then the topic really gets exciting, far more than surviving current denominational doldrums and much more about thriving as people freed up by the Gospel to move locally and confessionally in the church that is catholic, warts and all.
A PELIKAN INSIGHT REMEMBERED
Since most of us are current or former LCMS members, it’s useful to draw upon Synodical history for understanding how we came to this present from that past, and thus better asses whither we are tending.
During Jaroslav Pelikan’s all too brief years in the early 1950’s on the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, I recall his classroom comment on an irony in the earliest history of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod that has had an enduring effect: The Saxons left Germany in 1839 convinced that Lutheranism was dead in their homeland and that only by emigrating to America could they keep pure doctrine alive. The irony was that they emigrated just as a revival of confessionally sound Lutheranism was underway in Germany. Pelikan went on to observe that C.F.W. Walther’s lifelong justification of the emigration created a form of Lutheran confessionalism which made doctrinal purity a sole institutional possession to be defended against error rather than a treasure to be shared with other confessors in mutual upbuilding and mission in the world.
Pelikan was too able a historian to say only that about Walther. He recognized the young Walther as the needed pastoral leader to deliver the bewildered, betrayed Saxons from the crisis of imperious leadership under Martin Stephan. He also recognized Walther’s contribution as an influential writer on the distinction between law and Gospel. Yet, for reasons many and varied, Walther missed the potential benefit of moving beyond his defensive justification of the move to America and embracing the renewed Lutheranism left behind. That was the irony – an element Reinhold Niebuhr saw running throughout American religious history and defined it as what happens when someone sees another intending to do something valid, but doesn’t see his own flaws in assessing what he sees; then when something goes wrong it’s not the fault of fate but of the one doing what he thought was altogether virtuous.
Thus a particular form of Lutheran confessionalism took shape as the Missouri Synod began. It cannot be caricatured as only defensive, brittle, and exclusively subject to doctrinal repristination. The historical circumstances of its formation, linguistic, geographic, and cultural, did condition the Missourians’ sense of what being truly Lutheran required. And it must be remembered that Lutheranism was indeed in sorry shape in many places of in early 19th century Germany where runaway rationalism had gutted many a pastoral ministry. And the 1817 Prussian Union of Reformed and Lutheran confessions was no monument to confessional theological integrity. But other things were happening. Toward mid-century in the homeland there were not only Lutherans throughout Germany who prized soundness in faith but Lutherans were awakening to new ways of putting it into practice. Lutheran mission societies emerged in Leipzig, Hermannsburg, Berlin and elsewhere in the Germany the Missourians left behind. Meanwhile, the fledgling Synod’s early decades of tangled relationships with the Pennsylvania Ministerium, Buffalo and Iowa synods, the predestinarian controversy, and later inter-Lutheran skirmishes futhered an inward-turned isolation (for more, cf Edward Busch’s doctoral dissertation –firstname.lastname@example.org). It is the story of a Lutheran confessionalism becoming increasingly narrow, striated and hardened as its founding narrative of emigration as the price paid for being the sole possessors of doctrinal purity remained unexamined.
In another place, I have given this strand (not the only strand as I shall describe shortly) of Missourian identity the inelegant title “scholastic confessionalism” (Mission In The Making, Concordia, 1964) and traced its effect in shaping the domestic and overseas mission in later l9th century LCMS history. Scholastic confessionalism put the emphasis on correctness of belief according to doctrinal statements laid out like pearls on a string, with the doctrine of verbal inspiration underpinning the validity of each. From there it was but a short step to view mission as correcting those in error as a priority over reaching non-Christians with the saving Gospel. The interesting thing that happened, however, was that in the actual doing of mission the well developed methods of American evangelicalism (rooted in the early 1800’s American Protestant revivals) were adopted and adapted. And meshed with these two opposing yet pragmatically relevant strands of motive and method was a third element. It was also present in the Synod from the beginning but came from a source other than the Saxons. I named it “evangelical confessionalism”, again a clumsy title and easily confused these days when evangelical means something else.
EVANGELICAL CONFESSIONAL LUTHERANISM WITHIN THE LCMS FROM THE BEGINNING ON
The mid-nineteenth century founders of the LCMS included a cluster of missionary minded young pastors sent over from Neuendettelsau in Bavaria by Wilhem Loehe. They took Lutheran doctrine no less seriously, but being Loehe trained they were bent on living out the mission of the Gospel to American Indians in the Michigan region where they settled. Though long on zeal, they were short on practical know-how in reaching Indians, as they soon discovered. Their story makes fascinating reading to this day; I sought to describe it in a chapter devoted to their venture in my Mission In The Making. The Loehe-inspired immigrants were unique in seeing themselves as a mission colony rather than a band of congregations sending individual missionaries to evangelize American Indians.
Via the Loehe-trained clergy and those who came with mission in mind, another sense of what it meant to be confessionally Lutheran entered the fledgling Synod’s DNA, the evangelical confessional strand. Here, doctrine is centered in the Gospel, to which the whole counsel of God bears witness for the purpose of proclaiming and teaching it. The Good News of sin forgiven and new life bestowed through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not one doctrine among many. It is the glowing center which offers the grace of the living God who has shaped his whole being to be with us and for us in Jesus his Son. Evangelical confessional belief is grounded in the Biblical testimony to the risen Lord Jesus, “who is the head of the body, the church; the beginning, the first born from the dead, who has first place in everything, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross “ (Colossians 1:18-20). This evangelical confessional strand was at work in the LCMS from the beginning. It intertwined with the scholastic confessional strand to form a unique history of Lutheran confessionalism in America, the two strands ebbing and flowing together through the historical exigencies of the Synod to this day.
AN UNEXPECTED BOON – AND BURDEN
This blend continued as German emigrant pioneers developed into a denomination in post-Civil War America. With no way of preparing for what was coming after 1860, pastors and congregations found themselves increasingly deluged by the largest mass migration of people in western history to that date. By the millions immigrants came from Europe to America in those decades, motivated by the dream of political freedom and becoming landowners as the Homestead Act of the mid-1860s promised. My paternal grandparents were among them. Barely out of their teens, they came from Germany in the early 1880’s, were married at historic Trinity congregation in St. Louis, then settled in south central Nebraska where they homesteaded farmland, built a sod house (and brought twelve healthy children into the world, my father the fifth in line). Like so many others of their time, they helped begin a German Lutheran congregation, served by their circuit riding pastor in fair weather and foul. Their rural story is repeated in towns and cities: in Chicago First Immanuel Lutheran Church grew from 150 to 1500 members, in Ft Wayne from 1000 to 3000, in Milwaukee from 332 to 1428 – all during the decade from 1857 till 1867 and in every case with one pastor. This was replicated in scores and hundreds of congregations and schools suddenly overwhelmed by incoming immigrants seeking a spiritual anchor in their new world.
The explosively unprecedented pace of growth had an inevitable impact. One pastor could hardly be a shepherd to so many newly arrived immigrants, even though they did their best to offer Seelsorge in meeting the plethora of their parishioners’ needs. Pastoral care veered toward doing pastoral ministry by the book. If people did not, could not, comply with increasingly legalistic assumptions and rules, they left or were lopped off the membership list. Additionally, the pastoral dynasty syndrome began to set in, with not a few congregations better known by their pastor’s name than by names chosen from Biblical nomenclature. Inter-pastoral and inter-congregation connections were largely limited to those of the same Synodical clan. To interact with other Lutherans in the neighborhood, not to mention non-Lutheran Christians, who spoke a different language, sang from a different hymnal, came from a different homeland and culture was hardly to be expected. Those other Lutherans could be no less tribal than the German Missourians. Add to this the isolating, hardening effect they felt from true blue Yankee neighbors who scorned them as unpatriotic, second-class Americans – neighbors who suffered from short memories of their own immigrant roots.
All this was not conducive to understanding themselves as a confessional movement in the church catholic.
These factors notwithstanding, the Missourians accomplished remarkable things in their first century in America. Two seminaries and two teachers colleges were established, plus feeder colleges from coast to coast to prepare student candidates for pulpits and classrooms. They founded a national network of Lutheran elementary schools in which children were taught by teachers and pastors who did their overburdened best. They kept a tradition of liturgy and hymnody alive which made for a welcoming familiarity for people moving from place to place. Der Lutheraner and the Missionstaube (a mission story magazine) were effective publications in building the Synod’s identity. Catechetical instruction was a given for children up through confirmation (and the post-confirmation dropout syndrome showed up as the whole idea of discipleship as a lifelong vocation went unaddressed). Domestic missionary ministries took form as hospitals, hospital chaplain ministries, homes for the elderly, and city missions began – all of them from outside the formal Synodical framework which necessitated working their way in for acceptance by a Synodical establishment wary of the social implications of the Gospel. In 1894 the first foreign mission work began with posting two missionaries to India. Throughout this era a remarkable cohesiveness knit pastors and teachers together in friendships formed from prep school days onward. Another factor in the unique confessional development of the Synod was the normative role of the Concordia, St. Louis faculty as an unofficial but authoritative magisterium handing down opinions on matters of theology and pastoral practice ranging from predestination to taking interest on loans, from unionistic church fellowship to whether Sunday Schools threatened pastoral teaching authority.
A SETTLED HERMENEUTIC UNSETTLED
The two confessional traditions within the LCMS interacted in varied ways without major overt conflict until the early 1940’s. Crassly stated, the LCMS was a two-party system without fully knowing it. Underneath, however, there were tensions that were rumbling and would not go away.
The other notable thing is that a hermeneutical principle of Scripture, based on a doctrine of inspiration not found in either the Bible or the Lutheran Confessions, moved to unexamined prominence. It had a controlling effect on the doctrine of the church. John 3:16 and the Gospel of justification by faith were indeed confessed, but along with that confession was a doctrine of verbal inerrancy that gave Romans 16:17 the power to trump any empirical function within the church catholic. More plainly said, it meant that a Missouri Synod Lutheran could not pray the Lord’s prayer with a non-Missouri Lutheran, nor any other Christian. Driving this bizarre aberration from everything the New Testament teaches about the church as the body of Christ whose members are inseparably related to each other was a doctrine of verbal inspiration that made the inerrancy of Scripture central in a claim found only by inference from the Bible itself. Ironically, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims hold a similar view of their sacred books, but the Missourians based their claim of exclusive possession of the fullness of Christian truth on their view of the Bible and how to interpret it.
In the early 1920’s a celebrated test case of this issue surfaced in a place far from St. Louis (and from the Wabash Railroad network that Jaroslav Pelikan – partly tongue in cheek – cited as the boundary line separating strict from more open Missouri Lutheranism). Young Adolph Brux, among the most gifted Missourians called to foreign missions, took the call to serve in India. Upon landing in Bombay he stayed at a Protestant guest house and when invited to join in the evening prayers did so. And said so. Predictably, Romans 16:17 was at the heart of the case against him. The scholastic confessional strand overrode the evangelical confessional spirit he carried with him into his calling. Months and years of wrangling followed. He lost his case and left the Lutheran church for a career teaching semitic languages at the University of Chicago. One neighboring pastor, Otto Geiseman, reached out to him in subsequent years as a brother in faith. I learned of this telling instance of sectarian Lutheranism from Geiseman himself when I came to Grace as an assistant pastor in 1954. Later, I sought out an aged Adolph Brux myself and saw first hand the lasting effects of spiritual wounding inflicted on a gifted man whose calling was terminated by a Biblical hermeneutic that made him one with the smooth-talking belly servers named in Romans 16:17 – all this because he prayed with other Christians in that Bombay guest house. Though Brux was dismissed, the case was not closed. Less than two decades hence, the issues would surface again, this time not around a missionary to India but around 44 Synodical pastors and educators of reputable standing in the Synod. They posed the first public, theologically informed challenge to the founding narrative of the Missouri Synod as the sole possessor of the fullness of God’s revealed truth.
A STATEMENT WITH 44 SIGNERS
Who the forty four signers were is not as important here as what they did. Meeting in Chicago in 1945 they issued a short document named A Statement. It was an appeal to fellow Missourians to recover and restore the evangelical heart of the Synod that had become encrusted in legalistic lovelessness. It was also a bold call to break out of the illusion that the LCMS was a monolithic body with nothing amiss at its doctrinal core. These pastors and professors embodied the evangelical confessional emphasis upon the Gospel as the power which calls separated Lutherans to unity rather than the isolation of self-preoccupation. I quote the document in full, letting the signers speak for themselves:
/In Nomine Jesu/
We, the undersigned, as individuals, members of Synod, conscious of our
responsibilities and duties before the Lord of the Church, herewith
subscribe to the following statement:
We affirm our unswerving loyalty to the great evangelical heritage of
historic Lutheranism. We believe in its message and mission for this
crucial hour in the time of man.
We therefore deplore any and every tendency which would limit the power
of our heritage, reduce it to narrow legalism, and confine it by manmade
We affirm our faith in the great Lutheran principle of the inerrancy,
certainty, and all-sufficiency of Holy Writ.
We therefore deplore a tendency in our Synod to substitute human
judgments, synodical resolutions, or other sources of authority for the
supreme authority of Scripture.
We affirm our conviction that the Gospel must be given free course so
that it may be preached in all its truth and power to all the nations of
We therefore deplore all man-made walls and barriers and all
ecclesiastical traditions which would hinder the free course of the
Gospel in the world.
We believe that the ultimate and basic motive for all our life and work
must be love–love of God, love of the Word, love of the brethren, love
We affirm our conviction that the law of love must also find application
to our relationship to other Lutheran bodies.
We therefore deplore a loveless attitude which is manifesting itself
within Synod. This unscriptural attitude has been expressed in
suspicions of brethren, in the impugning of motives, and in the
condemnation of all who have expressed differing opinions concerning
some of the problems confronting our Church today.
We affirm our conviction that sound exegetical procedure is the basis
for sound Lutheran theology.
We therefore deplore the fact that Romans 16:17, 18 has been applied to
all Christians who differ from us in certain points of doctrine. It is
our conviction, based on sound exegetical and hermeneutical principles,
that this text does not apply to the present situation in the Lutheran
Church of America.
We furthermore deplore the misuse of First Thessalonians 5:22 in the
translation “avoid every appearance of evil.” This text should be used
only in its true meaning, “avoid evil in every form.”
We affirm the historic Lutheran position concerning the central
importance of the una sancta and the local congregation. We believe that
there should be a re-emphasis of the privileges and responsibilities of
the local congregation also in the matter of determining questions of
We therefore deplore the new and improper emphasis on the synodical
organization as basic in our consideration of the problems of the
Church. We believe that no organizational loyalty can take the place of
loyalty to Christ and His Church.
We affirm our abiding faith in the historic Lutheran position concerning
the centrality of the Atonement and the Gospel as the revelation of
God’s redeeming love in Christ.
We therefore deplore any tendency which reduces the warmth and power of
the Gospel to a set of intellectual propositions which are to be grasped
solely by the mind of man.
We affirm our conviction that any two or more Christians may pray
together to the Triune God in the name of Jesus Christ if the purpose
for which they meet and pray is right according to the Word of God. This
obviously includes meetings of groups called for the purpose of
discussing doctrinal differences.
We therefore deplore the tendency to decide the question of prayer
fellowship on any other basis beyond the clear words of Scripture.
We believe that the term “unionism” should be applied only to acts in
which a clear and unmistakable denial of Scriptural truth or approval of
error is involved.
We therefore deplore the tendency to apply this non-Biblical term to any
and every contact between Christians of different denominations.
We affirm the historic Lutheran position that no Christian has a right
to take offense at anything which God has commanded in His Holy Word.
The plea of offense must not be made a cover for the irresponsible
expression of prejudices, traditions, customs, and usages.
We affirm our conviction that in keeping with the historic Lutheran
tradition and in harmony with the Synodical resolution adopted in 1938
regarding Church fellowship, such fellowship is possible without
complete agreement in details of doctrine and practice which have never
been considered divisive in the Lutheran Church.
We affirm our conviction that our Lord has richly, singularly, and
undeservedly blessed our beloved Synod during the first century of its
existence in America. We pledge the efforts of our hearts and hands to
the building of Synod as the second century opens and new opportunities
are given us by the Lord of the Church.
/Soli Deo Gloria/
In Witness Whereof, we, the undersigned, affix our signatures this
seventh day of September in the year of our Lord 1945, at Chicago, Illinois.
ACKER, LAWRENCE HEMMETER, H. B.
AMLING, C. M. HILLMER, WM. H.
ARNDT, W. HOFFMANN, OSWALD
BARTELS, H. KRETZMANN, A. R.
BAUER, W. E. KRETZMANN, KARL
BEHNKE, C. A. KRETZMANN, O. P.
BERNTHAL, AUG. F. KUECHLE, GEO.
BOBZIN, AUG. F. KUMNICK, H. H.
BRETSCHER, PAUL KUNTZ, WERNER
BRUENING, WM. F. KURTH, ERWIN
BRUSTAT, A. W. LINDEMANN, FRED H.
CAEMMERER, RICHARD R. LINDEMANN, HERBERT
COATES, THOMAS LOOSE, F. W.
DEFFNER, L. H. MEYER, ADOLF F.
ENGELBRECHT, H. H. MILLER, PAUL F.
FRIEDRICH, E. J. POLACK, W. G.
GEISEMAN, O. A. SAUER, O. A.
GIESELER, C. A. SCHROEDEL, THEO. H.
GLABE, E. B. THEISS, O. H.
GRAEBNER, THEO. WEBER, EDMUND W.
HANSER, ARTHUR R. WENCHEL, J. FREDERIC
HEMMETER, BERNARD H. WIND, H. F.
Both in content and tone the Statement carried a new spirit, or, in my view, a spirit not new but recovered from an evangelical confessional strand always present in the Synod. The Gospel centered faith and practice, they said, must not be smothered by man-made walls and ecclesiastical traditions which hinder its free course. Affirmation Two names inerrancy as part of the certainty and all-sufficiency of Holy Writ, an assertion that could evoke further exploration, but its point was to deplore raising Synodical resolutions and human judgments to the status of authoritative Scriptures. Affirmation Five takes issue directly with Romans 16:17 as applicable to all Christians who differ with the LCMS on points of doctrine, and questions the hermeneutics of making that passage normative for refusing inter-Lutheran relationships. It took courage for the signers to say that with pointed clarity for they surely knew that repercussions would follow. Affirmation Six speaks to the subject of this paper, and draws from a deeper Lutheran history to make visible and inseparable the bond between the local congregation and the una sancta, the church catholic. Affirmation Eight echoes the unholy fracas over Adolph Brux and confirms what he stood for — two decades too late. The thread running through the whole document is the call to love God, the word, and the brethren (and sisters, we would now add).
Synod President John W. Behnken asked (ordered? cajoled?) the signers to withdraw their Statement. They did so. Why? Was their obedience to the Synodical president a vote of confidence that the Missouri Synod in 1945 could face its problems openly and fraternally? In the years of the late 1950’s when I served at Grace as O.A. Geiseman’s assistant, I don’t recall his saying much about it. But I do know that important, informal inter-Lutheran gatherings that inspired much of the Statement did continue. A group of LCMS, ALC, and ULCA leaders met annually at a Racine, Wisconsin retreat center and conferred on how separated Lutherans might come together to serve a nation and world traumatized by World War II. Several of us who were assistant pastors at Grace under Geiseman got a taste of those meetings as harbingers of unity efforts to come and the evangelical spirit that provided common ground.
Here I quote from another, later writing that reveals how these kindred souls cared for each other in life and when death separated them. O.P Kretzmann wrote these words when learning of the death of Otto Geiseman in 1962 (excerpted from his longer tribute article in the Cresset Magazine):
I like to think about Geise in terms of two principles which marked his life and work.
The first was his remarkable obedience to the Divine Word. If ever a servant of the post-modern church lived under the sign of “Thus saith the Lord,” it was he. He had tested the validity of grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone in the furnaces of thousands of lonely and broken hearts and had found them to be the very heart of a seeking and redeeming God. There was something illumined and illuminating about his preaching and teaching which was seen by many beyond the borders of his parish. He stood unswervingly before God on behalf of his people and before the world on behalf of God, always pulling the pendulum of life toward the soul, making it the very heart of the redemptive activity of God.
His second dominating principle was the principle of love. When he said “My people at Grace Church” he always spoke in a tone of pride and affection. With the eyes of a true shepherd he saw their pain and tears, the God-given glory of their origin and destiny. As a result he was always catholic and ecumenical in the best sense of these beaten words. Scattered throughout the church are scores of people for whom his study is a remembered and hallowed place. They came to him because they knew he would listen, that he would not be surprised or shocked by anything and that he would draw them to the highest and holiest in their faltering lives. He loved them as his own Shepherd had loved him.
This evening time of the world may darken down into a deeper night than ever before, but God’s cause is safe in the hands of people like Geise. God may bury his workmen but the work goes on.
The effect of President John Behnken’s burying the long simmering issues raised by the Statement signers led to another ironic turn in LCMS history. Squelched in 1945, the issues exploded with unprecedented fury in 1969. A radically scholastic confessional reaction, embodied in a highly organized political machine, showed a take-no-prisoners determination to clean the Synodical house from top to bottom in the years following. Their supporters elected Jacob Preus to lead the charge. At the same 1969 Synod, church fellowship with the American Lutheran Church was passed. Irony upon irony.
As I see it, what made the l969 Synodical schizophrenic decisions so fateful was the inglorious end it brought to an era of unparalleled promise for the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod to make incremental strides forward as a confessional movement in the church catholic. Seminary faculties added new members who brought deeper academic and theological training, including an influx of Wisconsin Synod theologians (Martin Franzmann among them) who brought the healthiest kind of conservatism – if that macerated term must be used. A new and imaginative pastoral education system began, with the senior college at Ft. Wayne as its centerpiece. Teacher college educational leadership and faculty enrichment at River Forest and Seward flourished. Para-synodical institutions such as the Wheatridge Ministry took on broader, international mission scope as well as deepened service to congregations at home. What had been conceived as foreign missions began to take on a radically Biblical orientation of the whole church in mission to the whole person, society, and world as the 1965 Synodical Convention adopted of the Mission Affirmations. Its chief author, Martin L.Kretzmann, brought overseas experience and evangelical confessional theology together in the document. I quote it in full here because it is unsurpassed in its profoundly Gospel- centered core:
Affirmations of God’s Mission
Adopted by The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (1965)
Prayer Read at the Beginning of the Report of the Floor Committee on
O God the Father, who didst send Thy Son into the world to redeem the
world, which Thou didst create for Thy glory;
O God the Son, who hast redeemed the whole world to God by Thy blood,
who art Lord over all things and Head of Thy body, the church;
O God the Holy Spirit, who art the Comforter sent by the Father and the
Son to lead us into all truth and to send and guide us on Thy saving
mission to a lost world;
We beseech Thee, O holy triune God, to pardon us for our sins of
disobedience against Thy Law and for our littleness of faith in Thy
Gospel. Do not cast us aside because of our unfaithfulness, but for Thy
mercy’s sake be faithful to Thy promise of full pardon to all who fully
confess their sins to Thee.
Lord, we have nothing to bring to Thee but our sins and our emptiness.
Forgive us for Jesus’ sake, and fill us with Thy grace. We praise Thee
and Thee only for the fruits of the Holy Spirit manifest in the life and
work of Thy church. We are not worthy of the least of all Thy mercies,
but Thou art worthy to receive blessing and glory and wisdom and
thanksgiving and honor and might.
Help us to see ourselves as Thy mission to men in their every need, to
society in all its tensions, to the church in all its tribulation and to
the whole world in all its futile struggles to find its peace without
Thee. Give us, who are Thy sent ones, Thy compassion for Thy lost ones.
Teach us to remember that we are but the dust into which Thy Spirit
breathes the breath of life, the earthen vessels Thou hast selected to
be the treasures of Thy grace, and ambassadors of Thy kingdom, which
Thou alone canst establish in the hearts of men.
Keep us as a Synod from becoming so preoccupied with ourselves that we
lose our sense and purpose of being Thy mission. Preserve us from that
pride which thanks Thee that we are not as other men are, lest we leave
this place proud of our heritage but unmindful of that heritage to which
we have been begotten by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Help us to glory in nothing save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus, by whom
the world is crucified unto us and we unto the world. Let Thy Word be a
lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. Preserve us from the
paralysis of fear. Grant instead Thy promised gifts of power and love
and a sound mind. Cause us all to walk together as saints of God who
know they are yet sinners; who deal with one another not as the good or
the bad but as the forgiven, who love much because they are forgiven
much by Thee.
Hear our prayer for the sake of Him who ever liveth to make intercession
for us, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
The following six resolutions (1-01 A to 1-01 F) refer to “Report of
Mission Self-Study and Survey, I. Theological Basis of the Mission of
the Church” (CW, pp.113-123).*
The Church Is God’s Mission
RESOLUTION 1-01 A
WHEREAS, The Father sent forth His Word to create and preserve the
WHEREAS, Upon man’s revolt the Father sent His Son into the world to
redeem the world; and
WHEREAS, The Son in obedience to His Father’s commission laid aside His
glory, became a man to serve men, and died on the cross to reconcile all
things unto God; and
WHEREAS, The risen and victorious Lord sent forth His church on His
mission when He appeared to His disciples on the day of resurrection,
declaring: “Peace be unto you; as My Father hath sent Me, even so send I
WHEREAS, The Father and the Son together sent the Holy Spirit into the
world as the great Missionary until our Lord’s return; therefore be it
/Resolved, /That we affirm in faith, humility, and joy that the mission
is the Lord’s; He is the great Doer and Sender; and be it further
/Resolved, /That we affirm that the mission is not an optional activity
in the church, but the church is caught up in the manifold and dynamic
mission of God; and be it further
/Resolved, /That we thank the Lord of the church for all the ways in
which He has graciously used us and our church body in His mission,
blessing us and making us a blessing unto many; and be it further
/Resolved, /That we repent of our individual and corporate
self-centeredness and disobedience, whenever it has caused us to regard
our local congregations or our Synod as ends in themselves and moved us
to give self-preservation priority over God’s mission; and be it finally
/Resolved, /That we affirm that the church is God’s mission. The
church’s ministries of worship, service, fellowship, and nurture all
have a missionary dimension We rejoice that for Christ’s sake God
forgives us our sins of self-centered disobedience, and we place
ourselves, our congregations, and our Synod into His loving hand as
willing instruments of His great mission to the world.
/Action: This resolution was adopted./
The Church Is Christ’s Mission to the Whole World
RESOLUTION 1-0l B
WHEREAS, God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that
whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life; and
WHEREAS, Christ has sent His disciples out into all the world, saying:
“Go ye and make disciples of all nations”; therefore be it
/Resolved, /That we affirm that the church is Christ’s mission to the
whole world. Christians will approach men of other faiths in humility
and love. They joyfully acknowledge that God is active in the lives of
all men through His continued creative and providential concern, through
the Law written in their hearts, and through God’s revelation of Himself
in creation and nature. Christians affirm a common humanity with all
men. They confess a common sinfulness. They rejoice over a universal
redemption won for all in Jesus Christ; and be it further
/Resolved, /That we reconsecrate ourselves with everything we are and
have to the task of witnessing Christ in deed and word to all the world,
thankfully making full use also of the c6mmunication tools which God is
offering to the church through science and technology for this age of
the population explosion; and be it further
/Resolved, /That in the face of the great unfinished task we rejoice
over all faithful Christian efforts to witness Christ to all the world;
and be it finally
/Resolved, /That we recognize that our sister mission churches in other
lands have been placed by God into other circumstances and are
subservient not to us but to the Lord, who makes His church His mission
to the whole world.
/Action: This resolution was adopted./
The Church Is Christ’s Mission to the Church
RESOLUTION 1-01 C
WHEREAS, Every Christian by virtue of the saving faith which the Holy
Spirit creates in his heart is bound to His Lord and enters into a real
and living unity with every other member of Christ’s holy body, the
WHEREAS, The same Word of Christ that bids Christians to go and teach
all nations also instructs them to teach their fellow Christians all
things whatsoever Christ has commanded them; therefore be it
/Resolved, /That we affirm that the church is Christ’s mission to the
church. In obedience to the church’s Head and in sanctified loyalty to
his congregation and his church body, a Christian will be ready with
good conscience both to witness and to listen to all Christians. Like
the Bereans, the Christian will search the Scriptures to test the truth
of what he hears and what he says; and be it further
/Resolved, /That we affirm as Lutheran Christians that the Evangelical
Lutheran Church is chiefly a confessional movement within the total body
of Christ rather than a denomination emphasizing institutional barriers
of separation. The Lutheran Christian uses the Lutheran Confessions for
the primary purpose for which they were framed: to confess Christ and
His Gospel boldly and lovingly to all Christians. While the Confessions
seek to repel all attacks against the Gospel, they are not intended to
be a kind of Berlin wall to stop communication with other Christians;
and be it further
/Resolved, /That we affirm that by virtue of our unity with other
Christians in the body of Christ, we should work together when it will
edify Christ’s body and advance His mission, refusing cooperation,
however, on such occasions when it would deny God’s Word; and be it finally
/Resolved, /That we affirm that because the church is Christ’s mission
to the church, Christians should speak the Word of God to one another as
they nurture, edify, and educate one another for Christian faith and
life. Therefore as a Synod we value our strong tradition of Christian
education and seek to extend it throughout life, for laity and clergy.
Far from employing agencies of Christian education primarily in our own
institutional self-interest, we will endeavor to make them ever more
effective tools in equipping God’s people for His mission.
/Action: This resolution was adopted./
The Church Is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Society
RESOLUTION 1-01 D
WHEREAS, Jesus Christ is Lord of all the world and in every area of
WHEREAS, The Christian recognizes no area of life that may be termed
“secular” in the sense that it is removed from the lordship of Jesus
Christ, though it may not be under the control of the institutional
WHEREAS, The Christian does God’s work in the world through various
vocations in the home, church, and state as distinguished by Dr. Martin
Luther; therefore be it
/Resolved, /That we affirm that the church is Christ’s mission to the
whole society; and be it further
/Resolved, /That we recognize the difficulty of under-standing in every
instance whether God desires Christians to act corporately or
individually or both in His mission to the whole society; they will,
however, seek His will through prayer and mutual study; and be it further
/Resolved,/ That Christians be exhorted to serve God in every honest
occupation, recognizing that all of life is the arena of a Christian’s
ministry to God and man; and be it further
/Resolved, /That Christians be encouraged to seek the peace of the city,
as God commands, working together with their fellow citizens of the
nation and of the world, whatever their race, class, or belief; and be
/Resolved,/ That Christians be encouraged as they at-tempt, under the
judgment and forgiveness of God, to discover and further His good
purposes in every area of life, to extend justice, social acceptance,
and a full share in God’s bounty to all people who are discriminated
against and oppressed by reason of race, class, creed, or other
unwarranted distinctions. Christians recognize that all their fellowmen
come from the Father’s creating band and that His Son’s nail-pierced
hands reach out in love to all of them.
/Action: This resolution was adopted./
The Church Is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Man
RESOLUTION 1-01 E
WHEREAS, The Scriptures teach us that God’s love reaches out to the
whole man, for God the Father lovingly creates and preserves man; the
Son redeemed him in body, soul, and mind; the Holy Spirit brings him to
faith and moves him to use body, soul, and mind in God’s great mission; and
WHEREAS, Our Lord became a man and ministered to the needs of the whole
man, forgiving sins, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and even
providing wine for a marriage feast; and
WHEREAS, Our Lord at His return will solemnly report whether or not we
fed, clothed, and visited Him in the least of His hungry, naked, and
forsaken brethren; therefore be it
/Resolved,/ That we affirm that the church is God’s mission to the whole
man. Wherever a Christian as God’s witness encounters the man to whom
God sends him, he meets someone whose body, soul, and mind are related
in one totality. Therefore Christians, individually and corporately,
prayerfully seek to serve the needs of the total man. Christians bring
the Good News of the living Christ to dying men They bring men
instruction in all useful knowledge. They help and befriend their
neighbor on our small planet in every bodily need They help their
neighbor to improve and protect his property and business by bringing
him economic help and enabling him to earn his daily bread in dignity
and self-respect. Christians minister to the needs of the whole man, not
because they have forgotten the witness of the Gospel but because they
remember it. They know that the demonstration of their faith in Christ
adds power to its proclamation.
/Action: This resolution was adopted./
The Whole Church Is Christ’s Mission
RESOLUTION 1-01 F
WHEREAS, Every Christian is commissioned a missionary through baptism,
for through the selfsame water and Word the Holy Spirit makes us both
God’s children and His witnesses to the world when He says: “Go ye and
teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the
Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things
whatsoever I have commanded you”; and
WHEREAS, All who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death
and resurrection, into His mission, and into His body; therefore be it
/Resolved, /That we affirm that the whole church is Christ’s mission.
Therefore we deplore anything that seeks to divide what God has joined
together. We deplore the clericalism that views a congregation primarily
as God’s instrument to sustain the ordained ministry, thus smothering
the diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit to His people. Equally we deplore
the laicism that chafes under the shepherding by which a loving God
seeks to equip His children for His mission. We deplore the racism which
refuses to repent of its sin and denies the unity of all Christians in
Christ and His mission. We deplore the desecration of Christianity by
the multiplication of sects as though the Gospel were a religion of
human design instead of God’s outreach after men in the giving of
Himself. The divisions in the institutional church are as real as the
unity in Christ’s body which joins all Christians together. We deplore
the wars and political struggles that set Christians and other people in
one nation against those in another. We recognize that the Christian
lives in the tension between his own imperfect understanding of God’s
truth and his knowledge that in spite of errors and divisions he is
joined together in Christ’s body with all who truly believe in its Head.
The Christian lives in the tension between Christ’s lordship, which is
perfect, and his own disciple-ship, which is not. The Christian rejoices
over the existence of every fellow believer in Christ his Savior,
because thereby Christ is preached and His mission is implemented, for
the whole church is Christ’s mission.
Here is a fully orbed theology (in sexist 1960’s language) of the church as an instrument of God’s mission, unlike anything produced previously in the LCMS or anywhere else in American Lutheranism or American Christianity. The document had been mailed to all pastoral, teacher, and lay delegates eight weeks before the Synodical convention, a period hardly sufficient for even the barest comprehension of its implications. When it passed without major divisiveness, no pushback followed — at least initially. Instead the passage of the Mission Affirmations confirmed the arrival of evangelical confessional theology come of age in the vision of mission which moved it from something the church does to the essence of what the church is. The introductory whereas phrases in each affirmation fleshed out the theology driving the actions to follow. Committed Synodical leadership received the Affirmations as marching orders and began the arduous task of doing the Affirmations. That meant convincing pastors, teachers, and congregations occupying all points along the Synodical spectrum – supportive, neutral, opposed – to move together as a church in mission. But underneath the heady rationale and programmatic goals of the Affirmations, a restless segment of the Synod resented the radical turn of theology and practice implied and seethed over its unstated rejection of their priorities. A reaction was brewing, stoked by yellow journalism, and, it must be added, by a naiveté about what it would take to convert a church body of several million to its vision. Along with status quo neglect and noisy resistance to Mission Affirmation Lutheranism, a quiet but determined preparation began to take over the power centers of the Synod. I don’t recall any red flags being raised to recognize it. I was as blind as anybody to what was roiling under the surface. I did little or nothing to seek out disgruntled pastoral colleagues, listen to them, and try to find common ground in the Gospel. I repent of my part in what went wrong. There were many more like me.
With the election of Jacob A.O. Preus to the Synodical presidency in 1969 there began a theological and ethical descent to a nadir previously unknown in the LCMS. That story is told with unerring documentation by a neutral scholar who studied it as an outsider, James Burkee (“Power, Politics and the Missouri Synod, A Conflict That Changed American Christianity”). In reading the story that he tells I could recall my memories of the sting of loveless religion on the prowl. Letters and documents were stolen from my office files and sent to Robert and Jacob Preus in a Watergate-style effort to sabotage my efforts to support ousted seminary faculty members at the Concordias in River Forest and St. Louis. I called Robert Preus immediately when I learned what had happened and asked him if it was true. “Yes,” he answered,” because in the defense of pure doctrine these things have to be done. “ That did not wash with the people of Grace congregation. More to the point: my pastoral experience of dirty tricks was only one example of what became broadly normative in the Preus administration’s program of totally dismantling the evangelical confessional strand in the Synod. It was on display primarily in the assault on the faculty and student body of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, a spectacle of unprecedented use of power and control which led to the formation of Seminex as a testimony to evangelical confessionalism as the motivating theology for new beginnings.
What followed the Preus takeover of the Synod was predictable. With “liberals” and “moderates” (the labels are ridiculous) out of the way, the new leadership found enemies within their own ranks to devour, since finally, no ultra conservative can be ultra conservative enough. Or putting it another way, without repentance and forgiveness at work, the Lord’s hand is spurned and everybody suffers. The assault on what had been an inter-twined evangelical/scholastic confessional tradition for over a century and a half left both strands battered and feeble. So many faithful professors and pastors were judged guilty of false doctrine and summarily fired. So many fraternal friendships that crossed lines of theological conviction and pastoral practice were ruined. It was the spectacle of a church aping the Watergate Washington of the America of the 1970s. The proper response is not winners and losers but Kyrie eleison. No triumphalism can come out of this era. That only makes it worse.
I learned some key lessons about Lutheranism as a confessional movement in the church catholic during these years, and offer them as valid anytime, anywhere:
First, the great blessing of daily pastoral work and life in the congregation during seasons of denominational bombast. Here is the ballast for loving and being loved by real people striving to live the Gospel in the real world, day in and day out, when it’s tempting to allow the whole mess to be all-consuming. When I was hammered by nasty letters, phone calls, and visitors with an agenda, I was steadied by preaching (never sermons as score cards on current denominational winners/losers), teaching, visiting the sick and dying, counseling, mission calls, and all the rest familiar to pastors.
Second, keep the congregation well informed as the clouds gather. We did this at Grace via open meetings, often several hundred or more attending, where all could speak, question, and learn together why the Gospel matters and how to practice grace under pressure. Not to say those gatherings were fun. But they were invaluable as laity learned what the evangelical core of our tradition means when backed up against the wall.
Third, the Four Minute Rule. On any given day I (and my wife, our kids, and close friends) could devote no more than four minutes to The Problem. That discipline spared me ulcers plus the blight of becoming terminally boring. It works anytime, anywhere.
Fourth, I learned something about a deeper inner disquiet; Luther called it Anfechtung, the onset of a depressing mood of temptation to doubt the sufficiency of the Gospel to get through an ordeal. It would spread over me like a fog for a day or two before a congregational meeting, then vanish as soon as I could see/hear/feel faithful people speaking, listening, and indeed demonstrating the sufficiency of the Gospel. In the half dozen years of these meetings, our parishioners who were Concordia, River Forest, religion faculty members who came under attack from the Synod administration – all of them known and respected in the congregation- were decisive in the Grace Church decision to withdraw from the LCMS in 1977.
Fifth, take responsibility for consequences of opposing a denomination head on. Within days of our decision to withdraw from the LCMS, the Synodical leadership began its legal move to buy, or claim outright, Grace Church and School . The court process dragged on for eight years, finally settled by the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation of seven years of lower court decisions that denied the Synod the right to buy or claim Grace Church and School. (Our property occupies a corner of the Concordia, River Forest, square block and was bought in l927 and paid for in full by Grace members). To this day we remain an independent Lutheran congregation, not by choice but by the circumstance of a land contract that bars us from any non-Missouri affiliation till 2028. For more than you wish to know about all that, see my Grace Under Pressure (Word, l998) and The Last Long Pastorate (Eerdmans, 2004). The point: confessing the Gospel under conflicted conditions deepens faith as well as delivers lumps. Again, it’s not about winning and losing, but confessing the Gospel as the true treasure of the church catholic.
Sixth, re confessional Lutheranism as a movement in the church catholic: throughout the years of denominational conflict and well after, I was much blessed by participating with a dozen neighboring pastors in an ecumenical circle, men and women, which met every Friday morning at 7 for prayer, breakfast, and an hour of lectionary study of appointed texts for the Sunday ten days hence. This really mattered. It made the church catholic local, real, alive. It sharpened my awareness of what I had to give from my tradition and what I could receive from others. For twenty years we gathered not as competitors vying for who was purest but as servants together under the power of the Word. I treasure that experience and still wonder why it’s so rare.
Seventh: keep on learning parish ministry lifelong. The means are varied, sometimes academic and other times in forums of shared pastoral practice that bring the church catholic into focus. Initiating pastoral sabbaticals in the congregation helps. When thoughtfully introduced as a means for pastors to grow in needed skills in order to better serve the congregation, everyone gains.
RETIREMENT IS A RELATIVE TERM
When retiring from the Grace pastorate in 1998, a two-fold blessing followed. Bruce Modahl, a Seminex graduate with solid theological and previous pastoral grounding, took the call to be our pastor. And Beverly and I were able to get way out of town so that Bruce could establish his pastoral leadership and for us to discover new chapters in our calling. We moved to Bratislava, Slovakia, and with Paul Hinlicky’s deft arranging, began teaching part time in the seminary in which the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession (happily so named without Lutheran in the title) trains it clergy. In those years we learned much from Lutherans who found their confessional ground strong in withstanding heavy-handed Communism from 1948 through 1989. Their experience was a severe sifting whereby some Lutherans, along with other Catholic and Protestant Christians, went to prison while others endured all manner of harassment. And there were others who got along by going along. Overall, theirs was a forty year journey through a Marxist wilderness, something we from the west can only try to imagine. Through them we could see how repentance and grace work in another setting. Simul justus et peccator has existential meaning for Slovak Lutherans who received us warmly and helped us grow with them into this 21st century setting in which dialectical materialism is long gone but new gods of capitalist materialism slip in under the guise of conspicuous consumption.
We found that teaching Slovakian seminarians led on to other opportunities, including teaching staff people of Opportunity International, World Vision, and Habitat for Humanity in Eastern Europe, Africa, and SE Asia. This was possible through an enlightened distance learning program based at Eastern University in suburban Philadelphia. I joined an adjunct faculty team that took our respective courses abroad, met for weeklong residencies with staff members striving for improved skills in helping impoverished people lift themselves out of grinding poverty. Interesting note: before Eastern University (formerly Eastern Baptist College) accepted me to teach Servant Leadership and Spiritual Formation, I had to submit a statement of my belief as a Christian. Doing that meant expressing myself as a confessionally serious Lutheran glad to join with other Christians in enabling service to the last and the least in the Third World. I did not forget my confessional identity but remembered it and employed it with others whom Christ calls and equips. If my continuing ministry, along with most everything else I’ve been blessed to do for the past half century, had to wait for congruence with others in every point of Christian doctrine and Biblical interpretation with fellow Christians, the result would have been paralysis. Nowhere in the New Testament nor in the Lutheran Confessions is such a concept even remotely implied. What we find throughout are highly imperfect men and women who come together as those called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified by the Holy Spirit and kept with Jesus Christ in his body, the church. That hasn’t changed.
I say these things with deep gratitude for the physical health, energy, and serendipitous unfolding of ongoing ministry that amazes me. Added to this is the grace given through spouse, family, the Grace Church family and the global circle of friends who bring me joy in the work and curiosity about what’s ahead.
SO, THEN. . .
I have no time left to me nor interest in church bashing, be it the LCMS, ELCA or any gathering where two or three assemble in Jesus’ name. So, I pass on these convictions to all interested in our present and future as Lutherans confessing the faith in the church catholic:
+ The evangelical confessional Lutheranism that has guided my pastoral calling lifelong is thoroughly rooted in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and the Gospel center of that confession will bless our ongoing ministries in unbroken unity with all who contend for the Gospel as leaven in the church catholic.
+ In an era when the unique American phenomenon of the denomination is in rapid decline and the era of mainline Protestant hegemony is over, confessionally alive Lutheranism is all the more vital as a movement proclaiming not the purity of the institution but the primacy of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. He is the Good News for every bad situation our sinful preoccupation with power and control creates. God has put his power to save and renew into a word we can speak and live! Richard Caemmerer’s mantra still resonates as a summons to get on with gospeling each other and faithfully living the truth in love amidst assorted LCMS and ELCA maladies ranging from divisive contentiousness to tepid indifference.
+ The congregation is ever the front line of the church, whether gathered for worship or serving in the daily life of the community and world. Pastors who see their calling as equippers of the baptized for their ministry between Sundays need each other to share faith and wisdom collegially rather than going it alone. Similarly, those called to denominational offices of ministry serve the congregational front line best as ministering servants rather than institutional masters.
+ Current hot button issues before LCMS Lutherans, women’s ordination and sexual ethics come to mind, are abstractions until and unless met by real people of faith, women and men, gay and straight, who wrestle them through in the power of the Word in the congregation. Denominational resolutions devoid of what is learned in congregations where gifted people, women and men, gay and straight gather, do more harm than good – especially when “doctrines” about each are made matters of majority vote. Similarly, what is learned in congregation by leaders, women and men, by believers, gay and straight – all doing courageously and faithfully what they’re called by Christ to do – is what congregations owe their church bodies.
+ We western world Lutherans carry out our calling as an increasingly minority in the global North while in the global South the Christian church grows exponentially. Fact: The Christian faith increases by 79,000 daily in the world, among whom 70,000 – 91% – live in Africa and Asia. Fact: By 2050, China will be home to more Christians than any nation on earth. Fact: the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania grew by 73% from l990 – 2010 while the ELCA declined by 10% – with the LCMS not far behind. The implications of these unprecedented facts emphasize all the more the importance of our participation as listeners and learners as well as creatively faithful partners in the global church.
+ These stark facts about western Christendom must lead to bridge-building not hand-wringing. Think of it: business travelers, military personnel, parishioner-tourists already travel the globe in expanding numbers. The opportunities are ripe for connecting them to the global church as they travel and return home more intent on narrowing the lethal gap between haves and have nots in God’s world broken by injustice, poverty, and religious intolerance.
+ Non-Christian religions are not only distant masses but are people who are our new neighbors living nearby. As congregations are creative in reaching out with acts of hospitality, the damaging caricatures of other religions are dispelled through face to face contacts and trust is earned for their hearing the word of faith when it is asked for.
+ Our evangelical heritage inspires us to learn from our past without living in it as we move together into a future crammed with obstacles, yet wonderfully alive with new doors of opportunity opened to us. We go forward supported by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.