By Eugene Brueggemann
The question of church fellowship is one of the leitmotifs in the history of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The fellowship debate serves as a perennial tar baby in our fellowship, an obsession which time and again distracts us from other more pressing questions of mission and ministry. The sad, offensive spectacle we presented to the public in the pillorying of David Benke, president of the Atlantic District, for his participation in the civic religious event at Yankee Stadium following the attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York is only the most recent case in point.
The Saxon immigration under Martin Stephan occurred in 1838—1839. The Missouri Synod under C.F.W. Walther was founded in 1847. The Lord of the church has blessed this synod in uncounted ways. But today we find ourselves in a state of non-fellowship with every other Lutheran body in America. We have a number of partners in other lands, to be sure, and our fellowship with them is another story. While thanking God for that, we need to ask ourselves the questions: What is our fellowship principle? Why hasn’t it worked to forge and maintain fellowship at some level with other Lutherans (never mind other Christians) in our own country?
Missouri’s Search for Confessional Partners
The proto-Missouri Synod was a small cluster of congregations in Perry County and St. Louis, Mo., where the Saxons from Dresden had settled after they had broken fellowship with the church there and followed a flawed but charismatic leader, Martin Stephan, to a place in America where they could establish a pure Lutheran Zion. Purity was determined by faithfulness to the Lutheran Confessions. These had lapsed into irrelevance in Germany by politics in the various states, the dominance of the Enlightenment in the universities and by pietism in the church. Stephan’s flaws soon caused a crisis in the Perry County settlement and C.F.W. Walther emerged from the Sturm und Drang as the new leader of the movement.
Walther was called to the pastorate at Trinity, St. Louis, and also served as president of the fledgling Concordia College, which was both the first seminary and the first preparatory school of the soon-to-be born synod. Walther’s energy, theological acumen and vision were boundless. He began publication of a periodical, Der Lutheraner (The Lutheran), in which he summoned the Lutherans in America who still clung to the Confessions to join in the establishment of a confessional Lutheran Church.
Why didn’t Walther find fellowship with one of the many existing Lutheran groups? He judged the Eastern Lutherans in general to be weak as water when it came to their confessional stance. The Saxons had been part of the confessional revival movement in Germany, who were called “old Lutherans” by their contemporaries in Europe and America. Walther was not about to jump out of the German frying pan of lax confessionalism into the American fire of a pan-Protestant movement to form a national Protestant church.
There was a quick response to Walther’s invitation, both positive and negative. The positive response came from a group of pastors in Ohio and Indiana, most notably F.C.D. Wyneken in Fort Wayne. The negative response came from J.A.A. Grabau, pastor of a Prussian émigré group in Buffalo, N.Y., who had been imprisoned in Prussia for refusing to honor the protocols which united the Lutheran and Reformed Church there into one Evangelical Church. However, Walther and Grabau disagreed on how the Confessions defined the twin doctrines of the church and the ministerial office.
Wyneken had come to America with a passion to serve the scattered German settlers in the American “West,” (especially in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan) and had received generous support from J.K.W. Loehe of Neuendettelsau, Bavaria. Loehe recruited, trained and sent emergency missioners to America to serve the incoming tide of German Lutherans, some of whom he himself sent to build a colony in the Saginaw Valley of Michigan. He also built a practical seminary in Fort Wayne, which he deeded to the Missouri Synod at its founding in 1847. The pastors from Ohio who responded to Walther’s call for a confessional Lutheran Church were concerned about the growing Americanization of the Lutheran Church there (translation: using the English language in worship and instruction).
So Die evangelisch-lutherische Synode von Missouri, Ohio und anderen Staaten was born in 1847, united on the platform of the Lutheran Confessions and dedicated to furthering the cause of confessional Lutheranism in North America. A foretaste of things to come occurred a scant seven years later in 1854 when Loehe, whom Walther considered a co-founder of the synod, withdrew his support of the Missouri Synod and moved his American mission to Iowa rather than foster a controversy between his later missioners and the proponents of Walther over the issue of the nature of the church and its office of holy ministry. Loehe never meant this to be a break in fellowship with Missouri, but that is how Missouri interpreted it.
Three Models for Fellowship
Three models for church fellowship emerged in 19th century American Lutheranism:
1. The inclusive model adopted by the General Synod.
2. The exclusive model adopted by the General Council.
3. The perfectionist model adopted by the Synodical Conference.
The Evangelical Lutheran General Synod was a federation of older synods formed in 1820. It sought to pull together many of the churches from the eastern seaboard to the Mississippi, requiring a minimal commitment to the Lutheran Confessions. Theirs was an inclusive model of church fellowship, exemplified most clearly by the Definite Platform for church union, which included an American recension of the Augsburg Confession. It was published by S.S. Schmucker, president of Gettysburg Seminary, in 1855 and edited out anything from the catholic tradition which might prove offensive to mainstream Protestantism, like infant baptism, private confession, the mass and the real presence in the Lord’s Supper. While it was not adopted by the General Synod, it represented a significant viewpoint in that synod.
This inclusive model of the General Synod was too much for a number of Lutherans in the East and Midwest, who decided to climb on board the confessional bandwagon and set out to establish the Evangelical Lutheran General Council, whose fellowship principle would be more exclusive, the acceptance of the Lutheran Confessions as the basis for fellowship.
The formation of the General Council in 1867 was preceded by defections from the General Synod in the East and by a series of four free conferences initiated by leaders of the Ohio and Missouri Synods in the Midwest. The invitations from Columbus and St. Louis sought to bring together all those who subscribed unconditionally to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession. They were held in the late 1850s, established general agreement in their study of the Confessions, but ran out of steam in 1860 when the fifth one was cancelled. Walther was sick and the Ohio Synod people were not planning to attend.
The Missouri Synod was invited to a convention in Reading, Pa., in 1866 which was designed to bring together representatives of confessional Lutheran synods to plan for the establishment of the General Council. Missouri was represented, but not by Walther, who again pleaded sickness. (It is impossible to determine how much of Walther’s illness, if any, was of the diplomatic sort.) When the General Council was formed in 1867 in Fort Wayne, the Missouri Synod declined to join. The platform was the right one, but Walther and others believed that the confessional subscription of many attendees was either uninformed or insincere. Missouri wanted confessional subscription mit Herz und Mund (with heart and mouth). Unresolved questions of altar and pulpit fellowship and lodge membership were on the agenda of the emerging council. The English language was a background concern.
The willingness of the synods which formed the General Council to work together in fellowship on the basis of acceptance of the Lutheran Confessions would seem to be a victory for Walther’s and the Missouri Synod’s goal of a confessional Lutheran Church in America, but it was not. Increasingly Walther’s (and therefore Missouri’s) concern was for agreement in doctrine on matters not treated by the Confessions. The foundation was shifting from agreement on the Confessions to agreement on the Confessions plus every other teaching of the Bible. Walther had once written that doctrinal discussions with Lutheran should be on the basis of the Confessions alone; conversations with other Christians should be on the basis of the Scriptures. Changing circumstances meant changing positions.
Walther’s caution (or cold feet) in regard to membership in the General Council led him to urge the mostly German-speaking Midwestern Lutherans to form the Synodical Conference in 1872. It consisted of the Ohio, Norwegian, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri synods. The fellowship principle of the Synodical Conference was perfect agreement in all articles of faith. Pure doctrine (reine Lehre) was the watchword. The Missouri Synod and its sister synods wanted to embody what Walther called “the true visible church of God on earth,” the Evangelical Lutheran Church which publicly preaches and teaches only pure doctrine. The Lutheran Zion envisioned by the Saxon immigrants reached its apogee in the Synodical Conference in 1872.
The Perfection Principle in Theory
The theory goes something like this: The Scriptures are the supreme authority in the church. God’s word is perfect, even though its authors were not. The Holy Spirit inspired them and guided them into all truth through the crucibles of controversy in the early church and in the Reformation time. The teachings of the pure word have come to us in the form of the catholic creeds and Lutheran Confessions. We are therefore conscience-bound to teach, preach and believe these doctrines.
All the doctrines necessary for our salvation (and many more) are defined in the creeds and Confessions. But there will always be disagreements about what the Confessions say, and there will be new doctrinal issues which were not addressed in the Confessions. The Missouri Synod emphatically rejected the idea of episcopal authority in the church. Doctrinal disagreements will be resolved on the basis of the word alone. Walther wrote: “Let us not surrender one iota of the demands of the Word. Let us bring about its complete rule in our congregations and set aside nothing of it, even though for this reason things may happen to us, as God wills. Here let us be inflexible, here let us be adamant. If we do this, we need not worry about the success of our labor.” He wrote this in the context of a presidential address in which he insisted that the synod is advisory to its congregations: “[W]e have merely the power to advise one another … we have only the power of the Word, and of convincing.” Synodical doctrinal resolutions are therefore not binding on congregations until the congregations accept them as a true expression of the word of God.
No mechanism for determining the truth of the Scriptures was specified in the synodical constitution. The assumption was that the teaching office of the church lay in its theological faculties and pastoral conferences and that study of the word would bring consensus on doctrine. Leading the study was the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and especially its presidents, C.F.W. Walther and Franz Pieper. Their influence was such that a remarkable unanimity reigned among the theologians and pastoral conferences on disputed doctrines for the better part of a century. Especially anathema to Walther and the early generation of Missourians was the concept of “open questions.” There was no room for the slightest disagreement about anything in the Bible, including its history, scientific worldview or geography.
Given the presupposition that the word alone should resolve doctrinal difference, the synod promoted free, i.e., unofficial, conferences of pastors and professors to seek consensus among confessional Lutherans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As the years and the controversies went on, Missouri’s practice of not praying with other Lutherans with whom they were not in agreement created a most difficult climate for these conferences.
The Perfection Principle in Practice
The perfection principle was put to its first test by a disagreement within the Synodical Conference on the doctrine of election, that is, who does God elect to be saved? F.A. Schmidt, a pastor of the Norwegian Synod, whose appointment to a chair on the faculty of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis was evidently blocked by Walther, accused Walther of teaching a false doctrine of election. A theological brouhaha followed. When the dust had settled, the Norwegian and Ohio Synods had withdrawn from the Synodical Conference, which never really recovered.
The Norwegian Synod pulled together a number of Norwegian Lutheran groups into a larger Norwegian Synod in 1917. A minority of Norwegians dissented and joined the Synodical Conference in 1920, which had added the Slovak Synod in 1908. The General Synod, Synod of the South and General Council merged in 1918 as the United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) and adopted the Lutheran Confessions as its doctrinal basis, a hollow victory of sorts for the confessional movement initiated by Walther and the Missouri Synod, which by this time had a laundry list of doctrinal differences with the groups which made up the ULCA.
Ultimately the Synodical Conference collapsed in 1961 after the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS, the little Norwegian Synod) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) withdrew. The reason: Missouri had proved unfaithful to the perfection principle. It was practicing limited fellowship with other American Lutherans through a number of social agencies, campus ministries and chaplaincy work and was continuing fellowship negotiations with the American Lutheran Church against the wishes of the ELS and WELS.
The perfection principle was the thing which crippled every effort to find grounds for fellowship with the Ohio and Iowa Synods which eventually joined with the Buffalo Synod in forming the American Lutheran Church (ALC) in 1930. Fellowship with the ALC was almost affirmed at the St. Louis convention in 1938. There were objections from pastors in the Missouri Synod, and it was referred for further study. The objections multiplied in the ’40s and ’50s as representatives of the Missouri Synod and the ALC struggled to achieve fellowship through the writing of a Common Confession.
The mood in post WWII Missouri was changing. A Statement was written and circulated by a group of forty-four pastors and professors in the Missouri Synod in 1945 which challenged the letter and the spirit of the arguments traditionally used against fellowship with the ALC, especially the use of Romans 16:17–18 as a proof text against such fellowship. Twenty years later, in the late 1960s, two decisions were made which modified the traditional perfection principle: The synod joined in forming the Lutheran Council USA (LC/USA) with the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church on the condition that serious doctrinal studies would continue with the goal of reaching doctrinal unity, and a fresh start was made on finding grounds for fellowship with an ALC which now included the Norwegian Synod (Evangelical Lutheran Church). The synod under the administration of President Oliver Harms encouraged a fresh look at the historic differences between the Missouri Synod and the ALC. Commissions were appointed by both synods, and upon their recommendation fellowship with the ALC was affirmed at the Denver convention in 1969.
Fellowship has both an internal and external component. It can and must be said that the perfection principle not only frustrated every attempt to achieve doctrinal unity with other major American Lutherans bodies through most of synod’s history; it also was used increasingly by its proponents to attack professors and pastors within the synod as false teachers when and if they appeared to depart from any of Missouri’s long-held doctrinal formulations.
This internecine warfare climaxed in a series of convention battles between 1969 and 1973. The proponents of the perfection principle mounted what they called “the battle for the Bible.” Their target was a number of St. Louis seminary faculty members. Their first victory came in the election in 1969 of Jacob Preus by a very narrow margin. Ironically, this happened at the same convention in Denver in 1969 which declared fellowship with the ALC and changed the synod’s traditional position on the right of women to vote and serve as officers in congregations and the synod—the high water mark of the post-war movement to modify the perfectionist principle.
But the tide had turned. Four years later when the synod met at New Orleans in 1973, it passed a series of resolutions which judged the seminary faculty majority guilty of heresy and replaced the seminary Board of Control with men committed to the proposition that Missouri’s traditional doctrine of the word was perfect and must not be challenged or modified in any way. The new board suspended the seminary president and in February 1974 fired practically the entire faculty for disobeying an order to return to their classrooms. These had been emptied by a student moratorium in a show of support for their president and by their demand that the president of the synod tell them which of their professors were heretics. The seminary went into exile and eventually enough congregations withdrew from the synod to form the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC) which worked as a catalyst to bring about the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
The loss of these dissenters did not end the matter. In short order Missouri broke fellowship with the ALC and discontinued its membership in the Lutheran Council/USA. Attacks on pastors, professors and synodical officials by perfectionists within the synod continue unabated. Fellowship with other American Lutherans on every level has been discouraged and discontinued wherever possible. Nothing but a complete purge of real or suspected dissenters from membership will satisfy the true believers of the perfectionist school of thought.
A Critical Analysis of the Perfection Principle
As has been shown above, the practical outcome of the perfection principle is fractured fellowship with other Lutherans and a fractious atmosphere within the synod itself. That is strong evidence that something is wrong with the perfection principle. Herewith a few suggestions of what is wrong:
1. The perfection principle rests on a false doctrine of perfectionism, which springs from the Reformed theology of triumphalism, not the Lutheran theology of the cross. Under the cross we confess our imperfect understanding of God’s perfect will and humbly listen to the voice of a sister or brother who may disagree with us even as we struggle to understand God’s word in the light of the gospel. We have long ago condemned perfectionism in the realm of Christian behavior. It is time to admit that perfection in theology is impossible this side of heaven. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Corinthians 13). Perfectionism cannot coexist with the simul justus et peccator concept of the sanctified believer or of the church which is the assembly of such believers.
2. The perfection principle breeds pharisaical pride. Missouri’s contemporaries in the Walther era frequently spoke of “proud Missouri.” That pride was tempered significantly after World War II when Missouri, like the Vatican, opened the windows of its mind and heart to the life- and mission-renewing winds of the Holy Spirit. The windows slammed shut after the 1973 New Orleans convention as the synod purged the St. Louis seminary, closed the Senior College (whose faculty strongly supported the St. Louis faculty), bailed out of LC/USA and broke fellowship with the ALC, tempting perfectionists to pray, “God, we thank thee that we are not like other churches, especially not like the __________________” (fill in the blank). There is little God can do with us and through us until we repent of our hubris.
3. The perfection principle leads to a sense of infallibility. We don’t negotiate the truth. We define it. Prof. Theo. Graebner, a professor at Concordia, St. Louis, in the first half of the 20th century and editor of the Lutheran Witness for much of that time, was a skilled defender of the perfectionist enterprise until his latter years. He changed his position, was one of the forty-four signers of “A Statement” and wrote a tract published posthumously entitled “The Burden of Infallibility” in which he decried and repented of the hidden assumption in Missouri’s position that our body of doctrine is the final depository of infallible truth. Fifty-five years after Graebner’s death we are still carrying the totally unnecessary burden of infallibility. We have loyalty oaths for faculty members, censors for articles and books—the trappings of an infallible church.
4. The perfection principle betrays the Reformation by effectively displacing the gospel as the center of truth and foundation of the church and elevating every other doctrine to the level of “what must be believed” in order to have fellowship. It also upends the principle that the church—including our synod—must be forever in the process of reformation. “We have not attained, nor are we already perfect,” to paraphrase St. Paul in Philippians 3 (KJV).
5. Ultimately the perfectionist principle dishonors Christ and frustrates his Spirit who works through the gospel which has the power to change hearts and minds and, yes, theological opinions when they lose the suppleness of new wineskins and burst the seams of categories no longer able to contain the dynamism of the gospel.
A Disclaimer and Modest Proposal
The disclaimer is this: Those of us united in the enterprise called DayStar want to dispel any suspicion that we dissent from the confessional article of the Missouri Synod’s constitution. We wholeheartedly subscribe that article, and we yield to no one and no party in our desire to understand and teach the Scriptures in their truth and purity, with the gospel of Christ at their center and his Spirit enabling us to correctly proclaim, define and embody the word of truth in our generation as the apostles did in theirs.
The proposal is this: Since fellowship based on perfection in every conceivable doctrine is an impossible dream, let us be about the business of actively encouraging one another—and especially our Council of Presidents, our theological faculties and our pastoral conferences—to study this issue to the end that we abandon the illusion that perfection is possible and that we are the only ones in a position to define it. We would not want to suggest that the pursuit of truth is a trivial pastime or that our confessional position as stated in Article II of our constitution is negotiable. We do insist that the body of doctrine contained in the resolutions of the synod, the position papers of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations and the opinions of the seminary faculties is something less than infallible, something less than confessional. Some are simply wrong. They need to be examined and reexamined in the light of the gospel and with the goal of building up, not tearing down, the fellowship we have with the saints of God which will never be perfectly realized in the here and now but which must be honestly, faithfully and humbly pursued.
Pastor Eugene Brueggemann lives in retirement in Fort Collins, Colorado