The Experiment That Failed

By Eugene Brueggemann

One of the most important speeches I ever heard was delivered at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, on the occasion of my graduation from grad school in 1951 –and I thought it was a terrible speech. The speaker was Dr. A.H. Grumm, a Vice-President of Synod. He had three books at the podium as he spoke, the Bible, the Book of Concord and the Handbook of Synod. He held them high in turn and told us to cling fast to them. My reaction was shared by many of the graduates, that faithfulness to the Scriptures and the Confessions was obvious, and that putting fidelity to the Handbook of Synod in the same context was just plain silly. I was embarrassed for the speaker, but not as embarrassed as I am now for my reaction.

How wrong I was! In the almost fifty-five years I served as a pastor in the Missouri Synod, as we struggled with one doctrinal issue after another, I came to a profound appreciation of the Constitution of Synod and its radical, gospel-inspired definition of the relationship of Synod to its members and its equally radical reliance on the Spirit to lead it to resolve doctrinal controversies apart from the partisan/political passions of a synodical assembly.

The Constitution did not devolve from a think-tank of experts. It was the end result of the searing experiences of the Saxons under Martin Stephan, the charismatic pastor of St. John’s congregation in Dresden, to abandon the state church and build a Lutheran Zion in the American wilderness. Those experiences included the trauma of leaving their homes and families in 1838-9, the crossing of the Atlantic and loss of one ship, the investing of Martin Stephan as Bishop with absolute authority to govern both the spiritual and material life of the expedition, the bad choice of property in Perry County, Mo., the inept administration of Bishop Stephan, the uncovering of his affair with one of the women of the Sachsen Gesellschaft, the hasty trial of Stephan and his banishment from the colony – all of which culminated in a crisis of humongous proportions and the emergence of C.F.W. Walther as the new leader of the Saxons.
Walther was the theologian who convinced them that they were a legitimate church because as a congregation they held the keys of the kingdom and could transfer this authority to administer word and sacrament to whomever they called to be their pastors. Walther’s influence continued as pastor of the congregation the Saxons had founded in St. Louis, Trinity Church and as President and chief theologian of Concordia College (seminary) which moved from a log cabin in Perry County to St. Louis in 1849, and as President of the Synod, 1847-1850 and 1864-1878.

As editor of the Seminary’s journal, Der Lutheraner and Lehre und Wehre, Walther surveyed the scene of German Lutheranism in America and issued an invitation to form a synod which would be unconditionally faithful to the Lutheran Confessions. Affirmative responses came from Wilhelm Loehe’s missioners in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan and from some pastors of the Ohio Synod. Die
evangelisch-lutherische Synode von Missouri, Ohio und anderen Staaten came together in Chicago in 1847 with a constitution which bore the heavy imprint of the Saxon experience in Missouri. “Once burned, twice shy” was the unstated mantra of the Missouricongregations, who were determined not to form or join a synod with ecclesiastical authority over them. They’d had it with clergy setting policy and making all the decisions.

If clerical dominance was out, their determination to plant an Old Lutheran Zion remained strong. They emphatically did want to be identified as confessional, evangelical Lutherans, and Article II (Confession) of the Constitution made that clear: “The Synod, and every member of the Synod, accepts without reservation – 1. The Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament as the written Word of god and the only rule and norm of faith and of practice; 2.All the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a true and unadulterated statement and exposition of the Word of God . . . .” But they did not want to yield congregational authority to any synod, ministerium or ecclesiastical officer, be he pope, bishop, superintendent or president. Two articles in the Constitution bear witness to this Saxon stubborness, Article VII (Relation of the Synod to Its Members) and Article VIII. C. (Resolutions at Synodical Meetings).

Article VII: “In its relation to its members the Synod is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive powers, and with respect to the individual congregation’s right of self-government it is but an advisory body. Accordingly, no resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God, or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned.” (Italics added) The congregations are to decide whether or not a resolution of the Synod is in accordance with the word of God and expedient to its needs. In the early years of Synod’s history, every congregation was expected to approve or disapprove synodical resolutions and if they disapproved, to register their dissent with the Secretary of Synod. This procedure petered out after a short while. There was near-unanimity on the direction the Synod had taken, and the unanimity was uncoerced.

The same resistance to ecclesiastical authority (whether it be the King of Saxony or the Bishop of the Gesellschaft) is found in Article VIII. C.: “All matters of doctrine and of conscience shall be decided only by the Word of God. All other matters shall be decided by a majority vote . . . .” (Italics added) The Altenburg debate in 1839 after the deposing of Martin Stephan settled the question of whether the Saxons were a legitimate church or an illegitimate sect. The decision was made, not by majority vote, but by the power of the word to gain consensus. The Saxons wanted that process enshrined in the Constitution.

These two articles of the Missouri Constitution are radical in the best sense of that word: they are rooted in the freedom of the gospel within the necessarily structured form of a Synod. Walther’s theological greatness was his elucidation of the fundamental difference between the Law and the Gospel in Christian teaching and life, and that genius is reflected in these articles of the Missouri Constitution.

The question left unanswered by Article VIII.C. is, “Who finally decides what the word of God teaches” if it cannot be done by the Synod in convention? Without specifying any procedure for resolving doctrinal questions, the Synod came to rely on the doctors of the church, its theological faculties, to speak the most authoritative word in addressing doctrinal controversies, after the issues had been freely discussed and debated in pastoral conferences. The faculty opinions (Gutachten) were highly respected throughout Synod, but the faculties never had constitutional authority to be the supreme court of doctrine. Persuasion by the innate power of the word was the strategy. And it worked. The vaunted unity of the Missouri Synod through the 19th and early 20th centuries was not the result of external coercion so much as it was agreement on the meaning of the word of God in re the doctrinal controversies of the day.

Since the St. Louis Seminary was defined as “the theoretical seminary,” and the Springfield Seminary was defined as “the practical seminary,” it was the St. Louis Seminary faculty which for the better part of a century was regarded as the final authority in respect to doctrinal matters. Their authority under C.F.W. Walther and Franz Pieper was rarely disputed. The key to understanding their standard of orthodoxy lies in the devotion of Walther and the “Old Lutherans” of 19th century Germany to the scholastic system of the great dogmaticians of 17th and 18th century Lutheran orthodoxy, men like Chemnitz, Gerhard, Calov and Baier. Pure doctrine (reine Lehre) was defined by that tradition. The Missouri Synod’s debt to these orthodox fathers was fully paid in Pieper’s three volume Christliche Dogmatik, which closed the canon of Lutheran Orthodoxy.

If the theological faculties were officers in the holy warfare to define and defend pure doctrine, the pastors of the Synod, meeting in pastoral conferences, were the foot soldiers. The official conferences met twice a year and before every district or general synodical convention. The President of Synod or his representative would meet with the pastors before the conventions to answer questions about doctrinal issues and to assure themselves of general consensus on them. When the conventions passed resolutions about doctrinal matters, it wasn’t to resolve them, but to give God thanks for the consensus which had emerged. Such resolutions had no binding authority; they were simply consensus statements on doctrinal issues.

Unfortunately, it came to pass that the pastoral conferences, far from becoming active participants in discussing and defining pure doctrine, became indoctrination centers, where passive conformity to Synod’s positions was the primary agenda. As an example of this tradition, at the first conference I attended (in 1951), the District President (a fine, evangelical pastor) reprimanded the presenter at the previous conference for challenging the Synod’s position when he delivered a paper on the subject of the antichrist. The president’s point was that if a pastor is asked to deliver a paper on a subject and finds that he disagrees with Synod on that subject, he should decline to deliver the paper. Most of the pastors at this conference didn’t buy it. It was an increasingly unacceptable tradition to a growing number of pastors who wanted some wiggle room to discuss rather than simply ingest traditional doctrinal positions.

After the Walther and Pieper eras were over, there was never the same unanimity of doctrine and practice. There was no longer a towering theological authority like those two theologian/presidents. The stresses and strains of the transition from German to American Lutheranism were apparent. In addition the seminary faculties at St. Louis and Springfield were not always in agreement, even issuing conflicting opinions, as in the question of whether engagement was tantamount to marriage in the 1940s.

Fissures in the unity of the Synod on doctrinal matters began to appear from the 1920s on over the doctrines of church fellowship and its negative corollary, unionism. A major movement toward Lutheran unity among the conservative midwestern synods of Missouri, Iowa, Ohio and Buffalo was on the verge of success in the late 20s, but Missouri’s insistence on perfect agreement on all doctrines persuaded Iowa, Ohio and Buffalo to put church fellowship with Missouri on the back burner as they united to form the American Lutheran Church (ALC). It must be noted that some of Missouri’s intransigence was caused by deference to the strong anti-fellowship opinions of the Wisconsin and a recent spin-off of the Norwegian Synod which now has the name Evangelical Lutheran Synod, who were partners in the Synodical Conference.

Fellowship negotiations continued between the Missouri Synod and the American Lutheran Church, and at the synodical convention in St. Louis in 1938 the floor committee recommended the declaration that there were no doctrinal impediments to fellowship with the ALC. This recommendation prompted the
assembly to sing a Te Deum, following which a group of anti-fellowship delegates pleaded for more time to consider the fellowship issue before voting for it. This was granted, and a new day dawned in internal Missouri relationships. The former unity was gone as pastors and lay people lined up for and against fellowship with the ALC. A group of pastors within the anti-fellowship cadre began to publish The Confessional Lutheran, which demanded absolute perfection in any doctrinal statement to which both the Missouri Synod and the ALC subscribed. Perfection, of course, amounted to total agreement with traditional Missouri positions, the
assumption being that Missouri had maintained a pure doctrine standard since its inception. Common Confession I didn’t satisfy this group, and neither did Common Confession II (both produced in the early 1940s). But the guns of the orthodox were not aimed exclusively at suspect theologians in the ALC, they were now aimed as well at Missouri theologians whom they disagreed with. The unity of the Missouri Synod in all things doctrinal was a thing of the past.

The strong accusations of false doctrine and heresy from the Confessional Lutheran side prompted a group of forty-four pastors and professors to publish A Statement in 1945 which condemned the loveless spirit it found in the Confessional Lutheran and similar groups, and insisted that the ALC were not the “belly-servers” St. Paul condemned in Romans 16:17, men who were destroying the unity of the church by introducing false doctrine. Since five members of the St. Louis faculty were signers of A Statement, they became the special targets of conservative Lutheran publications. A controversy of major proportions was the last thing synodical President John Behnken wanted in the run-up to the centennial convention in 1947, and he persuaded the signers of A Statement to withdraw their statement so that discussion of the issues it raised would cease. They did, but it didn’t. The controversy raged on.

One of the consequences of the involvement of St. Louis faculty members in A Statement was an outpouring of resolutions at both the district and general synods condemning their action. An appeal to the Seminary for an opinion on this matter was deemed futile: the seminary itself was now the problem in their view. There had been a half-hearted effort by the faculty to speak with its traditional authority to the ALC fellowship problem in the early 40s. Two professors, P.E. Kretzmann and Theodore Graebner co-authored a book entitled Toward Lutheran Union which pleased no one and settled nothing. Graebner shortly thereafter was one of the signers of A Statement, and Kretzmann retired from the faculty and went on to start a very conservative house seminary in the Twin Cities.

So when the Synod assembled in San Francisco in 1959, it had to consider a large number of memorials which addressed these issues and adopted Resolution Number 9 from the floor committee on doctrinal matters which required that all professors at synodical seminaries and colleges conform their teaching to The Brief Statement, a summary of Missouri Synod positions in its negotiations with the synods which would form the ALC when those negotiations came to an end in 1932. It had been written by Franz Pieper and bore the full weight of the Walther/Pieper heritage. It was adopted by the Synod in 1932 as a consensus statement of Missouri’s position, similar to Common Confession I and II of the early 40s.

There was considerable opposition to Resolution Number 9. The English District asked President Behnken to refer the resolution to the Commission on Constitutional Matters (the CCM), and they ruled that the passing of this resolution was tantamount to amending Article II of the Constitution by elevating The Brief Statement to confessional status. There are provisions in the Constitution for amending the Constitution, and these had not been followed. The CCM’s decision was received by the convention which met in Cleveland in 1962, and the constitutional provision that All matters of doctrine and of conscience shall be decided only by the Word of God, and that All other matters shall be decided by a majority vote was upheld.

But it remained under attack. The occasion for the renewed attack was also very much a factor at the Cleveland convention: the paper which Professor Martin Scharlemann had presented to two pastoral conferences and the St. Louis Seminary faculty. His paper dealt with some problems in the doctrine of the word of God as it was formulated by the Synod. Fearing that his well-intentioned effort was causing too much unwholesome controversy, Scharlemann withdrew his paper from public discussion. In one of the strangest turn-abouts in Lutheran history, he became the strongest accuser of his brother biblical professors in the events surrounding the New Orleans convention in 1973.

Almost a generation had passed since the death of Franz Pieper, and the St. Louis Seminary forte was transitioning from its emphasis on scholastic-style dogmatics to biblical studies. The addition of a number of scholars trained in contemporary biblical research filled the theological void created by the retreat of dogmatics as the dominant discipline. It was a Copernican moment in Seminary and synodical history. Biblical studies no longer served simply as the handmaiden of dogmatics, as a mine for proof texts to define doctrine. The biblical text itself was explored in new ways, but always, as the Seminary insisted, with Lutheran presuppositions of gospel-centrism as the way to read it correctly. Filling old doctrines with new meaning is a tricky business which made it easy for the Seminary’s critics to accuse it of betraying the faith.

The Cleveland convention had so much unfinished business on its plate because of the amount of time spent on the Scharlemann matter that it authorized what was described as an ongoing floor committee on doctrinal matters to be called the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR). It was staffed with a full-time secretary and consisted of professors, pastors, teachers and laymen. It is advisory to the Synod and without statutory authority to enforce its decisions. It has rather clumsily filled the void created by the demise of the Seminary faculty opinion process.

Professor Scharlemann may have withdrawn his paper, but the issues it raised could not be withdrawn. Conservative opposition to anything which appeared to contradict the most traditional interpretations of the Bible morphed into political action to control conventions, key offices and ultimately, the colleges and seminaries. This proved to be both successful and divisive. J.A.O. Preus was elected by the slimmest of margins at the Denver convention in 1969, which also declared fellowship with the ALC, the last hurrah of the progressive, evangelical spirit of the mid-twentieth century Missouri Synod. In the same year John Tietjen was elected President of the St. Louis Seminary, and the stage was set for the donnybrook that was the New Orleans convention in 1973, where, in Preus’s words at the Northern Illinois District convention the previous year, “we’ll see who’s in charge,” which we did.

The Cleveland convention’s affirmation that synodical assemblies cannot resolve doctrinal controversies did little to deter the proponents from continuing to use convention resolutions to resolve doctrinal differences. Their strategy turned to multiplying resolutions defining Synod’s position on a multiplicity of subject, based on the principle that “walking together” means that the majority rules, as it does in state assemblies and the U.S. Congress. They advanced the novel theory that Synod’s members (its congregations and called ministers) by signing the Constitution are obligated to “honor and uphold” not just Article II of the Constitution (Confession), but also the resolutions of Synod, and should “teach in accordance with them.” A bylaw was passed to reinforce that position. (Never mind that signing the Constitution means acceptance of Articles VII and VIII. C. which deny the Synod authority to
enforce its doctrinal resolutions.)

The issue of biblical interpretation raised at the San Francisco (1959) and Cleveland convention (1962) ballooned in subsequent years, fueled in large part by the fear-mongering and heresy-hunting journalism which flourished in Synod. People were genuinely concerned about the charges that the Seminary was teaching and tolerating false doctrine. The Seminary was examined and reexamined by the designated boards and a special committee, whose judgments were that there was no false doctrine involved, but that some professors had said or written things which were cause for alarm.

President Preus was determined to use the convention which convened in New Orleans in 1973 to stamp out the false doctrine he saw coming out of the St. Louis Seminary in spite of the judgment of the Board of Control and his own specially-appointed committee.. In a closely-divided and deeply-fractured body
of delegates he guided the 55-to-60% majority he held to condemn the faculty majority of heresy and to elevate two documents to quasi-confessional status: his own Statement of Biblical and Confessional Principles and The Brief Statement of 1932. These actions led through many twists and turns to the firing of the faculty majority at the St. Louis seminary, the establishment of Concordia Seminary in Exile (Seminex) and a break-away synod – The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches – which brokered the establishment of the ELCA.

The details of this history are not the subject of this essay, but its effect on Articles VII and VIII.C. are. The New Orleans convention was a bold tour de force, essentially rendering Article VIII.C. obsolete. In a revealing related episode, Synod’s lawyers made the claim in court that Synod was a hierarchical body under certain circumstances, which in this case involved ownership of the property of Grace Church, River Forest, Illinois, property which Synod had given Grace with the proviso that it would revert to Synod if Grace joined another synod. Grace withdrew from the Synod to protest the actions of the New Orleans convention and became an independent congregation. The court ruled against Synod, in effect validating Synod’s advisory relationship to its member congregations outlined in Article VII of the Constitution.

So the letter and spirit of the Constitution in Articles II, VII and VIII.C were simply bypassed, and the officers of the Synod were pressured to enforce the resolutions of Synod. More than that, teachers of theology at all synodical institutions were required to sign a contract which forbade them from publicly challenging any doctrinal position of the Synod as defined by its strictly-speaking non-binding resolutions. San Francisco’s Resolution Number Nine rose from the dead.

Much of Article VII and all of Article VIII. C. was really a dead-letter after New Orleans, but the charade that the New Orleans action was constitutionally legitimate went on for several decades without significant challenge. Many of the potential challengers had been removed from office or had left the Synod.

If the Synod really wanted convention action to decide doctrinal questions it could have amended Article II (Confession) of the Constitution a la the finding of the CCM in 1962. But that didn’t happen. If it had, it would have been an admission that the key resolutions of the New Orleans convention were out of order. Instead, the CCM ruled in August 2009 that convention resolutions are assumed to be in accordance with the word of God and therefore enforceable. The immediate occasion for the 2009 ruling was an earlier ruling of the CCM that the 2004 resolution “To Affirm Marriage as Union of One Man and One Woman” was an enforceable resolution. The petitioner wanted to know if the CCM considered all synodical doctrinal resolutions enforceable. The answer they gave is that their ruling on marriage (Opinion 08-2524) is not only applicable to that resolution, “but to all resolutions, as already stated in the bylaw quotations included in the opinion: Under the assumption that 2004 Res. 3-95A is in accordance with the Word of God, the Synod expects every member congregation of the Synod to respect the resolution and consider it of binding force.” So the bylaw changes adopted since New Orleans have precedence over the Constitution, and Article VII and Article VIII. C., are null and void, historical but impractical artifacts of Synod’s early years.

So there you have it. The assumption that a convention resolution is in accordance with the word of God makes it all legitimate. The answer to the question, “Who decides what the word of God teaches” now is the majority of delegates in the midst of the politics and passion of a convention — just like they do it in the ELCA Church Assemblies. This, in spite of the fact that the same bylaws specify that binding doctrinal statements must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the delegates and a two-thirds vote of the congregations who participate in the vote.

By not answering the question who decides what the word of God teaches in the Constitution of 1847, the Synod left itself vulnerable to what came to pass at New Orleans. Wilhelm Loehe, the pastor from Franconia who provided men and money and the Fort Waynecollege, whom Walther called one of the founders of the Missouri Synod, gave his opinion that the Constitution opened the door for mob rule. It took a while to prove him right. It happened in1973.

First Martin Stephan, then C.F.W. Walther, and finally Franz Pieper filled the role of preeminent leader. Stephan’s authority was absolute. Walther and Pieper were theological authorities backed by seminary faculties which generally spoke with one voice in their opinions about doctrinal matters. Their authority was enhanced by being elected President of the Synod.

When that style of leadership ended with the death of Pieper, there was a generation wherein fresh ways of doing theology was emerging, based on a renewal of Luther studies and biblical studies. New ways of doing mission in cooperation with other Lutherans also came to pass in the creation of the Lutheran Council, USA (LCUSA). In the same generation there was a counter movement to preserve and
strengthen the old ways of doing theology and mission. That meant resisting to the point of denying much of modern science (including scientific study of ancient texts) and keeping the Synod pure of the stain of unionism by withdrawing from church work with other Lutherans.

Rather than trusting the Holy Spirit to work within the congregations, the conferences and the theological faculties of the Synod to create a consensus on doctrinal issues in an evangelical spirit, the new preeminent authority in Synod, President J.A.O. Preus who was more in the Stephan than the Walther/Pieper mold, skillfully and powerfully led the Synod along a new path, the path of power politics, control of the synodical conventions, and resolving doctrinal controversies by convention resolutions, that is, by tools of the law. It has been downhill ever since for those who work and pray for the primacy of the gospel in the teaching, mission and ministry of the Synod, whose conventions were designed to celebrate, not fashion, doctrinal unity.

Articles VII and VIII. A. are still in the Constitution, but they have been effectively neutered. They are historical artifacts bearing silent witness to the faith of the founders of Synod, that the Spirit, working through the gospel-centered word, can lead this part of the church into the truth as it engages in doctrinal discussions and controversies under the guidance of its called ministers of the word and with the concurrence of its congregations.

May God, in his mercy, lead Synod to reclaim its evangelical birthright.

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