Who Are We? A Personal Reflection

David Stein

Editorial Note: Dr. David T. Stein, a former president of the DayStar community, has served in parish ministry and higher education in the LCMS for over forty years. In retirement, he resides in Leander, Texas, and continues to take an active role in teaching and other opportunities for ministry.

In accepting this assignment, I knew there would be no easy answer to the simple interrogative “Who?” which must be personalized. Who we are begs a series of questions: Where did we come from? What have we become? When will we ever get it right or left? And why do we even continue to search for these answers?

Journalists work with this check list of who, where, what, when and why as they attempt objectivity and seek the truth concerning history’s pathways to knowledge and understanding. For more than seven years a cyberspace conversation has searched for meaning in the midst of the Missouri Synod’s endless struggle with her identity, purpose and mission. Daystars shine some Light into the growing number of dark corners filled with hostility, causing serious theological differences and numerous disagreements among sisters and brothers of the same faith traditions.

Years ago, I asked the question: “What has crippled the influence of a once progressive church body?” And my contention then, thirty years ago, was (1) internal theological conflict; (2) external theological conflict; (3) organizational in-fighting; (4) progressive weakening of institutions and structures; (5) loss of purpose and identity of the districts of the synod as organizationally decision making units; (6) disillusioned members, congregations and many professionals; and finally, (7) problem solving through organizational structuring rather than by governance process.

As I pen this current reflection, I am hard pressed to alter my study of thirty years ago except to add we are now in “an all-out war” for survival of our public image and corporate being. As I write amidst the cold winter of 2005-2006, a lawsuit has been filed against our “constitutional integrity,” and the powers of boards and commissions await the secular courts for clarification and legal opinion. Even the current term of the sitting president of the church body is in question, and recall appears to be the motive and goal of persons who filed the suit.

Who are we? The macro-picture includes 2,400,000 persons who claim membership in 6,000 organized congregations. Who are we? The micro-picture describes the autonomous individual whose name appears in the official baptized records of an organized church in fellowship with the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Now just a few years past our 150th anniversary we look into the kaleidoscope of current history and see thousands of “new” members who did not come from our ancestral spheres, many who are still learning how to spell the word Lutheran.

A few paragraphs of history may help us in our search for answer to the question, who are we? When the LCMS was organized in 1847, Chicago, not St. Louis, was her birth place. The United States was at war with Mexico. No railroads operated west of the Mississippi River. James Polk was president of the United States. We were not the first Lutherans in America. The first Lutherans in America were Delaware Swedes whose colonies began as early as 1638, two years after the opening of Harvard College. Georgia, New York and Pennsylvania all had established colonies of Lutherans by the middle of the 18th century.

Among the Lutherans of the Colonial period, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg was by far the outstanding person.1 Muhlenberg arrived in America in 1742 with the motto “ecclesia plantanda” (“the church must be planted”). Six years later he organized the first Lutheran synod on American soil, the Pennsylvania Ministerium.

Among the names of other Lutherans, the Henkel family became prominent during the 19th century, particularly in the Carolinas, Ohio and Tennessee. Henkel was a name that stood for confessional Lutheranism.2 One must note that American Lutheranism was not always confessional in its posture. Rationalism invaded the confessional nature of its status. There was a compromise by some among Lutherans to become distinctively American. This influence was evident at the beginning of the 18thcentury among Swedish Lutherans. Once again, in the first half of the 19th century, Lutheranism attempted to enter mainstream American denominationalism.

Reacting to what some considered a lax Lutheranism in the eastern part of the United States, Wilhelm Loehe of Neuendettelsau (Bavaria, Germany), an anti-rationalist of the 19th century, appeared on the scene. Loehe sent Lutheran missionaries from Germany to the east central United States. Not only was he concerned with Germans, but he displayed an active interest in attempting to Christianize the American Indian. The followers and missionaries of Wilhelm Loehe established their communities in the fertile Saginaw Valley of Michigan.

The birthplace of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, however, was not Frankenmuth, Michigan, and so the journey moves a bit south and west to Perry County, Missouri. Immigrants from Dresden in Saxony under the leadership of Martin Stephan settled in this rich and rural land south of St. Louis, Missouri. Problems of a personal nature forced Bishop Stephan to be expelled from the Perry County colony. A very troubled community, distressed because of the inadequate leadership of Stephan and by his apparent lack of moral integrity and character, these Saxons questioned whether or not they had done the right thing in leaving Germany.

Carl Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther stepped into the emotional and organizational vacuum created by Stephan’s mistakes and provided the glue for the development and operations of a Lutheran synod to be born officially some years later in Chicago, Illinois. C. F. W. Walther was the healing agent for the wounded colony of Saxon immigrants. Following the so-called Altenburg Debates in 1841, six years elapsed before the synod became a legal, organized and constituted body.

For persons not enchanted with linear history or impressed with growth statistics, let me adjust this rear-view mirror and simply say that from our humble beginnings through the first 150 years of our journey Missouri grew rapidly until the days of the exile of the St. Louis seminary, the formation of ELIM (Evangelical Lutherans in Mission) and the merger of the AELC (Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches) into the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

Before I leave statistics of reality, permit me briefly to look at what the Synodical Survey Commission of 1958, the year of my B.A. at the St. Louis Seminary (named Collegium Concordiae), projected through the year 1982, year 20 of my public ministry. In 1959 the commission projected a membership of 1,534,500 based upon national trends. The actual number of members at census time was 1,518,394. Not bad guessing!

Let’s jump 15 years into 1975. The commission had projected a membership base of 3,085,700; the actual statistics reported a membership of only 2,085,821. Oops! Something had gone wrong between projection and reality—a difference of one million for the negative. The survey commission’s projection out to 1982 raised the figure to 4,311,400. Ouch! Way off and something was curving backwards. Never has the synod officially reached three million members. I have wondered what the difference would look like if the commission had prognosticated statistics through the year 2000. The difference between 1959’s projection of 1,534,500 and 1982’s to 4,311,400 estimated an upward trend in excess of two and three quarters million in growth (+2,776,900). That was unreality.

Today, as I write, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod membership hovers just above 2,400,000 and is in decline as one of the mainstream church bodies in North America. That’s who we are as we launch campaigns for outreach and growth. Ablaze! has started a fire for the future in fields that are ripe for harvest. But there are all kinds of smoke screens out there and lots of cold water already being doused on the efforts to evangelize and teach and proclaim the truth of salvation.

Who are we? We are pilgrims battered on the journey; we have at times lost our compass and cannot read the stars to navigate a course that finds safe harbor. We are proud Germans who can’t let go of our European connections and who fail to see the peoples of the world as one. We have carried our traditions to the level of doctrine and so often deny the universality of God’s love for the whole world.

I remember so well the words of my dear sainted mentor, Martin Koehneke, after he had left the presidency of Concordia, River Forest, succeeded by Paul Zimmermann. “David,” he said, “the Missouri Synod fundamentally has a very serious problem, a very weak ecclesiology; a weak doctrine for the ministry and of the church. I think all the way back to the days of Walther and the literature abounds from the beginning of the Lutheran Church as being the true visible church of God on earth … we didn’t know what to do from a theological point of view.… God knows the church didn’t know how to handle women. I hope the Missouri Synod will never lose its capacity to laugh at (her)self because much of the doctrine of the ministry of Missouri has been shaped not by theologians but by politicians and the laws of the state. And we adapted ourselves to those situations.”3

Perhaps it is fitting to end here. The citation above was not recorded in the mansions above but was taped in the basement office of Dr. Koehneke 28 years ago. If Marty knew about the lawsuit against Jerry Kieschnick and Bill Diekelmann, he would not turn over in his grave, he would rise from the dead and write another series of articles for The Lutheran Witness, words like he wrote 30 years ago.

Missouri, you have an orthodoxy without the first love.… I clasp the whole church in the hollow of my hand, not only the Missouri Synod. I am not the Christ of a mere synod, sect, communion, denomination or congregation. I live in my whole body. Wherever men and women and children gather together to worship me, I am there. You may put up barriers between yourself and your fellow Christians, but I refuse to be or become the special lord of a special group. Has your eagerness to root out all mistakes and misguided persons in your communion led you to an orthodoxy which is more paralyzing than pure? I have something against thee, Missouri. There is something missing in your orthodoxy. For one thing, you talk too much about how orthodox you are;… you work hard. There is gallantry to your endurance. You are orthodox but you have lost your way.4

Who are we? Two million plus very different people propped up by divine love and endless forgiveness from the everlasting God triune.


1 Carl S. Meyer, A Brief Historical Sketch of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1963), 4.

2 Meyer, 4.

3 Martin L. Koehneke, Interview, February 19, 1977.

4 Koehneke, Interview.

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