“Unionism” as It Was Perceived and Dealt with 75 Years Ago
Edward Busch and Karl Wyneken
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has long had a reputation for keeping its distance from relations with other Christian groups and religious bodies.
Even with this historic aloofness understood, however, the efforts of a very conservative faction to oust Pastor David Benke from the presidency of the Atlantic District have seemed astonishing to many.
Benke prayed at the Yankee Stadium “Prayer for America” event last September 23. The prayer was explicitly Christ-centered. Nevertheless, his critics contend, the mere fact that this was done in an interfaith setting, involved him in a compromise of his Christian faith and confession.
Is such a separatistic impulse truly and fully the Missouri Synod’s heritage? Without doubt its history does suggest a substantially affirmative answer. Yet there is also evidence that the answer is by no means an unqualified yes.
As evidence of past ambivalence over this issue we offer this story of a servant in the church whose very promising career as a missionary and scholar ended in proceedings against him that even at the time were far from clearly resolved.
Some 75 years ago a highly gifted young missionary of the Missouri Synod, Adolph Brux, found himself embroiled in bitter controversy and terminated for daring to challenge the accepted tradition on this issue.
The historical record indicates there was ambivalence at the time about the issue Brux raised and what should be done with this “troubler in Zion.” In the decades that followed there was a time when the synod appeared ready to admit that he had been correct and to exonerate him. The synod’s 1967 convention passed a resolution to this effect.
In the Missouri Synod today, however, it appears that there are those who would, if they could, retract posthumously that 1967 convention’s vindication of Brux. And one must wonder, if these extremists had their way, would an Adolph Brux redivivus today be subjected to much the same shameful, shabby treatment that he was accorded in the Missouri Synod of the 1920s and 1930s?
For the “Background” of the Brux story we draw especially on the account by F. Dean Lueking in his Mission in the Making: The Missionary Enterprise Among Missouri Synod Lutherans, 1846–1963 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1964).
The major portion of the article is an excerpt from the Ph.D. dissertation of the Rev. Ed Busch at Claremont Graduate University, “The Relations between the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod from 1932 to 1941 and Their Failure to Establish Church Fellowship.” Dr. Busch’s thesis explored opportunities the LCMS and ALC predecessor bodies had for improved relations during the 1930s but how LCMS anxieties over “unionism” doomed these efforts.
Background of the Brux Case
Adolph Brux graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in 1917 and began his ministerial career as an instructor at the synod’s Milwaukee preparatory high school and college. In the summer of 1918 he enrolled in the University of Chicago’s department of Semitic languages and literature, and went on to earn a Ph. D. in Arabic studies in 1923.
This specialty prepared him admirably for a call to the Muslim mission field in India. In his history of Missouri Synod mission work, Dean Lueking speaks of him as “one of the ablest men the Missouri Synod ever sent abroad” (Lueking, 270f).
Together with two other new missionary couples and three single women, Dr. and Mrs. Brux arrived in Bombay on New Years Day 1924. The party found it economically advantageous to take advantage of the hospitality of a Protestant missionary hospice that catered to arriving and departing missionaries.
It was customary for guests to remain following supper for Scripture reading and evening prayer. According to Brux’s own account a prayer-meeting with several denominations represented took place “when I was a guest in the home of a Presbyterian missionary … though I was not called on to pray” (Brux, 1934, 9). Brux’s two missionary colleagues excused themselves for an after-dinner stroll. But Brux and his wife, along with two of the other women, found it more fitting to accept the hosts’ invitation (Lueking, 271).
Brux’s unconventional behavior became a topic of conversation on the group’s train ride to their assigned mission field. Brux defended his action. Later in January, in his initial attendance at the district missionaries’ conference, his indiscrete conduct was brought up and challenged. When his explanation and the ensuing discussion failed to produce a satisfactory resolution of the matter, he was invited to present a paper on the subject of Christian prayer and unionism at the conference’s April meeting.
Over the next several months, when the duties of his new field of endeavor permitted, Brux devoted himself to a more thorough study of the pertinent biblical material that the tradition had used to determine what was improper prayer fellowship and “unionism.” His research only confirmed his belief that there was no sound biblical warrant for the synod’s position and practice.
The presentation of his essay at the April meeting aroused, as Lueking puts it, “a torrent of conflicting opinion.” Yet Lueking also finds it significant that only two of the missionaries responded with a critique when Brux circulated it among them for a more considered scrutiny (Lueking, 272). His colleagues advised him to submit the essay to the Mission Board for an opinion, something Brux delayed doing until he returned to the U.S. on furlough in 1931.
This set the stage for a lengthy and frequently acrimonious debate on the issue.
Brux’s Long Ordeal
[The following is substantially by Pr. Ed Busch.]
Brux’s paper was reviewed by various committees, subcommittees and synodical boards. In large part his essay consisted of detailed exegesis of the Bible passages commonly quoted in support of the conventional stance, as well as those Brux felt were pertinent but were being overlooked. On exegetical grounds he came to the conclusion that, although the Bible warned against compromise of the truth, Christians nevertheless can and should pray together “when circumstances and need require it, and when no violation of our confessional position is involved” (Brux, 1934, 10).
Throughout the ordeal that lay ahead, Brux voiced one frequent complaint: those who read and evaluated his study refused to look at the detailed exegetical arguments he had adduced and noticed only his conclusions; these they deemed to be at variance with their preconceived conclusions, which were the “accepted” point of view; ergo, Brux was wrong. Such a verdict was explicitly stated in the action of the Foreign Mission Board on Oct. 12, 1932:
Since Dr. Brux in his paper on “Prayer Fellowship” has departed from the accepted Scriptural position of our Synod [emphasis added] with respect to prayer with heterodox Christians, as he himself acknowledges, and since our long continued efforts to convince him of the error of his position have been unavailing, Resolved, that we cannot return him to the field in India if he does not recede from his position within the time stated in his remarks as given in the Minutes above. (Brux, 1934, 13, quoting the Board of Missions minutes of October 12, 1932, p. 15f)
Brux’s interpretation was deemed to be out of line with the “accepted” synodical exegesis. He drew frequent attention to his opponents’ use of the term “accepted” and the a priori assumptions they were making with it. Since his view was at variance with the “accepted” tradition, they saw no need to go into any detailed study or refutation of his exegesis.
What little consideration Brux’s critics did give to any of his exegetical study was mostly to how he interpreted just one text—the text that had come to be the mainstay of the restrictive view of Christian fellowship, Romans l6:17–18. But his interpretation of this key text they simply dismissed as erroneous. And since he interpreted all the other texts in the light of his mistaken view of the Romans 16 passage, they alleged, there was no point in considering his views about any of the others (Brux, 1934, 12).
Between 1932 and 1935 the controversy continued. President Pfotenhauer lent his support to the Mission Board’s position. Seminary professors wrote articles and presented papers for and against Brux’s position. Finally, Brux appealed the decision of the board to the 1935 synodical convention.
The convention appeals committee heard both sides and then approved a report to the convention that clearly showed that the synod was able to change. The original committee report was as follows:
Your Committee, appointed to study the appeal of Dr. Brux, who served as Missionary to the Mohammedans in India during the years 1923 to 1932, has had a number of meetings with Dr. Brux and also with several other brethren who kindly offered their services to clear up this case of long standing, one of the great issues being that of prayer-fellowship. We are happy to report that agreement has been reached on the following statement with respect to prayer-fellowship, which we consider satisfactory:
So far as direct Scripture teaching on prayer-fellowship is concerned, there is no passage, so far as we know, that expressly prohibits prayer-fellowship with erring Christians whom we must still regard as members of the universal Christian church.
There are, however, passages which prohibit compromise of the truth, indifference to doctrine, unionism, and giving of offense.
Hence, every kind of prayer-fellowship which involves one of these objectionable features must be avoided.
He states that this has always been his doctrinal position.
Your Committee also discussed with Dr. Brux that section of his essay treating of the clarity of Scriptures. As to this, Dr. Brux declared that he in no manner questions the clarity of Scriptures and is in full agreement with our church’s doctrinal position. Furthermore, he states that if there is any passage in his essay which anyone is inclined to interpret as being unscriptural, he is willing to reconstruct such a statement or to withdraw it entirely. [Brux later suggested an addition here: “upon clear and sufficient evidence.”]
As for the essay in question, Dr. Brux states that he had never considered the treatise as final, but rather as a contribution for the discussion of the issue.
Therefore we hold that Brother Brux is eligible for the ministry.
Since Dr. Brux has spent so many years in a very special preparation for the work as minister to the Mohammedans, and since he has proven himself especially qualified to bring the gospel to the Mohammedan peoples, we recommend to Synod to instruct the Board of Foreign Missions to reinstate him in his chosen work.
The Word of God makes certain statements concerning unionism and prayer-fellowship. In the field of casuistry we are confronted with many situations that cause no little perplexity in our church body. In fact, the matter of Christian prayer-fellowship has become a burning question. The attitudes toward it vary greatly. Some recognize cautiously the limits of Christian fellowship according to their convictions in the light of Scripture; others show themselves sadly indifferent. Others, again, are filled with doubt and uncertainty as to what might be God-pleasing prayer-fellowship and know not at all what they should do. This is indeed a serious situation in our present-day Christian life where we associate with people of other denominations, and where we reach out to gain the unchurched and to convince the erring. In view of this situation, your Committee recommends that—as for instance in the case of the lodge question—Synod appoint a committee through its President to guide us all in a thorough study of Scripture as pertaining to prayer-fellowship with a sound application to church practice and Christian life, with the instruction to report at the next Synod. Pertinent studies might then be published in the Theological Monthly, Lutheran Witness and Lutheraner so that we might gain a uniform practice and our pastors and laity might be able to proceed in this important matter of prayer-fellowship with absolute certainty, unharassed by so much wavering.
Upon acceptance of this report, Dr. Brux withdraws his appeal (Brux, 1938, 3f).
When President Pfotenhauer read this report, he did not like it, and he asked that it be revised. So the committee met again, this time without Brux, but with a member of the Foreign Mission Board, Dr. Wm. Arndt (who would publish Christian Prayer in 1937), and presented a shorter report to the convention, which it approved. It read:
Your Committee, appointed to study the appeal of Dr. A. Brux, who served as missionary to the Mohammedans from 1923 to 1932, had a number of meetings with Dr. Brux and the other parties concerned to clear up this case of long standing. We are happy to state that we have come to a satisfactory conclusion.
Dr. Brux states that he withdraws his appeal and expresses his regret for the publication of any subjective judgments. He withdraws the charge of false doctrine against Synod. As for the essay on Prayer-fellowship, he states that he had never considered the treatise as final, but merely as a contribution to the discussion of the issue. Dr. Brux states his doctrinal position thus:
Scriptures very plainly prohibit compromise of the truth, indifference to doctrine, unionism, and giving of offense, and therefore forbid every kind of prayer-fellowship which involved one of these objectionable features. These are in the domain of casuistry cases where the question whether unionistic prayer-fellowship is involved cannot be answered in advance.
As to the clarity of Scriptures, Dr. Brux declares that he in no manner questions the clarity of Scriptures and is in full agreement with our church’s doctrinal position. Furthermore, he states that if there is any passage in his essay which anyone is inclined to interpret as being unscriptural, he is willing to reconstruct such a statement or to withdraw it entirely.
We hold Brother Brux eligible for the ministry.
Since Dr. Brux has spent so many years in very special preparation for the work as missionary to the Mohammedans, and since he has proven himself especially qualified to bring the gospel to Mohammedans, we recommend that he be returned to the field of his former endeavors.
We furthermore recommend that the Pastoral Conferences throughout Synod earnestly and diligently study the Scripture passages pertinent to the question of prayer-fellowship (LCMS Proceedings, 1935, 293)
When this report is interpreted in light of the first version of the report, it is clear that the committee still intended to vindicate Brux and to agree that praying with other Christians is not inherently wrong. However, the report was ambiguous enough for the board to interpret it the way it wanted to. So in spite of clarifications suggested by Brux at the time, in spite of assurances given by officials that clarifications were not needed since the sense of the report was unchanged, and in spite of the unambiguous statements that prayer-fellowship was a matter of casuistry and that Brux was eligible for the ministry and for return to the mission field, the board still insisted that Brux retract his essay before he could return to India. In fact, it even refused to pay him back salary (LCMS Proceedings, 1938, 318–23; Brux, 1938, 17–33).
So Brux asked for a special meeting, which was held on November 7, 1935. Newly-elected President John W. Behnken, out-going President Pfotenhauer, representatives of the board, members of the convention committee and others attended. Pfotenhauer and the board insisted that the convention had not settled the issue of Brux’s status and that he must recant. There was a great deal of argument over the meaning of words and phrases in the ambiguous second report, but finally the officials of the synod reaffirmed their position from before the 1935 convention that Brux was teaching false doctrine and therefore should not be paid back salary or be returned to the mission field, unless he retracted what he had said in his essay.
The result of all this was that Brux re-appealed to the 1938 convention, and it re-affirmed the action of the previous convention, directing the board to pay him his back salary (LCMS Proceedings, 1938, 317–24). In spite of all this, the Board did not send him back to India, and he left the ministry of the synod in 1940 to devote himself to private scholarly research.
Nevertheless, the influence of Brux on the Missouri Synod would continue. Brux was the first to have successfully challenged the “accepted Scriptural position” on a major teaching. What was even more significant, he had done this by questioning the interpretation of the passages that had been used for years in the synod against unionism and prayer fellowship. It was also significant that he had been led to see the need for such a re-examination of these texts as a result of his contacts with non-Lutheran Christians on the foreign mission field, the place where the ecumenical movement throughout Christendom had found the greatest support.
Thus Brux broke new exegetical ground for the Missouri Synod.
His Appeal and Re-Appeal involved him in personality clashes with strong-minded men such as Pres. Pfotenhauer and Dr. Frederick Brandt, the director of the Foreign Mission Board. Coming at a time when any change was viewed as an admission of error—something deemed unthinkable in the synod—his case was foredoomed to failure.
Yet the representatives of the synod at the 1935 convention showed that they were more willing to change than were its officials. Hence the action taken on the Brux case was the beginning of a change in the attitude towards prayer fellowship. Brux’s exegetical position would be reflected in various official and unofficial documents (for instance, Speaking the Truth in Love of 1945). This culminated in “The Theology of Fellowship” by the synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations, adopted by synod at its 1967 New York convention. This in effect repudiated the “traditional” exegesis of the unionism passages and accepted that of Brux (LCMS Proceedings, 1967, 91).
This same 1967 convention also passed a resolution that “agreement now exists between our Synod and Dr. Brux” (ibid., 221).
The shift in the understanding of ecumenical relations resulted in the declaration of fellowship with The American Lutheran Church in 1969. Though this can be seen as a momentary breakthrough, it was followed by a conservative backlash. This reactionary movement has prevailed, and now Missouri once again stands alone with “purity of doctrine” and unbending antagonism towards any who would dare to pray publicly with other Christians who are not a part of the True Visible Church on earth, the Missouri Synod.
And once again the controversy centers around Scripture texts—among them Romans 16:17—that Adolph Brux found crucial for his case and examined with new insight.
Brux, Adolph A. 1934. An Appeal to Synod with History of Case. Racine, Wis.: By the author.
———. 1938. Re-Appeal to Synod. Chicago: By the author.
Lueking, F. Dean. 1964. Mission in the Making: The Missionary Enterprise Among Missouri Synod Lutherans 1846–1963. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. 1935. Proceedings of the 36th Regular Convention, at Cleveland, Ohio.
———. 1938. Proceedings of the 37th Regular Convention, at St. Louis, Missouri.
———. 1967. Proceedings of the 47th Regular Convention, at New York, NY.
Concluding Historical Footnote
In his Appeal of 1934 Brux refers numerous times to the Rev. J. F. Boerger, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, Racine, Wisconsin, and president at the time of the LCMS’s South Wisconsin District. Adolph Brux was a native of Racine, and Pr. Boerger had been instrumental in encouraging him to study for the ministry. Brux remained a nominal member, even upon assignment to the India mission field, of the South Wisconsin District. It is clear from the Appeal that Pastor Boerger was one of the relatively few leaders in synod who felt Brux had a case, or at least that Brux had the right to speak and be heard, and who were firmly committed to giving Brux and his supposedly “aberrant” views a fair and impartial hearing.
Pastor J. F. Boerger is the maternal grandfather of Atlantic District President David Benke (see: http://www.ad-lcms.org/response_to_charges.html)
The Rev. Dr. Edward Busch
Additions and revisions by Karl Wyneken, from Dean Lueking’s Mission in the Making