Sermons and Papers

When is Enough Enough?

What are the limits, historically?

by Rev. Daniel Preus,
Executive Director, Concordia Historical Institute

What are the limits historically?

The topic which you have assigned to me is entitled "When is enough enough? What are the limits historically?" These questions, it seems to me, deal directly with the subject of Lutheran identity. What does it mean to be a Lutheran? What has it meant historically to confessional Lutherans when they have said, "I am a Lutheran."? At what point did they feel constrained to say to others, "You are not Lutheran."? Why and at what point did they exclude people or congregations from their fellowship because they were not Lutheran or because they were not Christian which amounts to virtually the same thing? In other words, how was church discipline exercised? What did they view as legitimate and godly dissent among brothers in the same Lutheran synod? At what point did dissent become heresy and require discipline? When did they in effect say, "This is enough. You have crossed the line. We can no longer be in fellowship with each other. Your practice and/or your doctrine is not Lutheran."?

I will attempt today to answer these questions and others at least briefly today recognizing that it is quite impossible to treat the subject thoroughly in the time allotted. For the same reason I will confine myself primarily to the American scene but I will also touch upon views outside the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, since we certainly do not believe that this church is the only one which in our country has been or is truly Lutheran in the confessional sense. I will also not be presenting a chronological description of how the question you have assigned me has been answered over the years, since that would be a far more complicated task than we have time for. I hope, however, that the context I provide will assist in defining what the parameters or boundaries were as understood by our spiritual forefathers in answering the question, "When is enough enough?" It will then be appropriate to make some application to our church today.

I would like to focus to a great degree on the way in which church discipline for pastors and teachers took place early in the history of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, particularly in the first 40 years. I believe that the matter of church discipline is, more than any other, where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. This issue defines the boundaries, and demonstrates where the church drew the line and answered the question, "When is enough enough?"

At the very beginning discipline upon pastors and teachers was exercised by the synodical convention. Not too long after the founding of the synod, the initial steps in disciplining a pastor were undertaken by the district of which he was a member. Final disposition of the cases took place at the synodical convention. Already by the 1870's, however, in view of the limited time available at the synodical and district conventions, investigations were handled mostly by committees. The final ruling, however, continued to be made by the synodical convention.

Without going into a great deal of detail, permit me to summarize some of the cases that were dealt with in the early years.

  1. The Synodical Proceedings of 1848 refer to a Pastor Romanowski who was investigated following a charge of a willful neglect of duties. He resigned before the investigation was completed.(1)
  2. In 1849 a Pastor Schneider who for some time had been insisting on using only the old Lutheran ceremonies, joined the Roman Catholic Church. No action was taken at the synodical convention since he was considered to have excluded himself.(2)
  3. The Western District Convention Proceedings of 1858 describe the events surrounding a Pastor Gruber who was at odds with the synodical position on chiliasm or millenialism. He had presented certain theses for discussion at the St. Louis Pastoral Conference. The conference called his views dangerous and unscriptural. When it became apparent that the synod would not entertain his position, Gruber voluntarily excluded himself from the synod. A resolution passed by the Western District regarding Pastor Gruber is interesting.

    Since Herr Pastor Gruber in a statement to the Synod in part explained his departure from the Synod and in part attempted to defend his chiliasm, the Synod decided to strike his name from the list, but not to deal any further with his chiliastic errors which have been sufficiently refuted elsewhere.(3)
  4. In 1860 Pastor N Volkert resigned voluntarily after accusations of sins of indecency and was considered thereby excluded.(4)
  5. In 1863 Teacher Kolb was relieved of duty for reasons unknown. He left the congregation and was seen thereby to have excluded himself.(5)
  6. Pastor J.C. Schneider was convicted in civil court in 1867 of impregnating a schoolgirl. He "voluntarily resigned" from the Ministerium and was thus excluded.(6)

I found a rather surprising and interesting pattern in all of these cases. Did you notice it? In all of the cases mentioned above, the Synod does not appear to have removed anybody except as a sort of formal closure to the matter after he himself had resigned from the Synod. What does this mean? The question is a bit difficult to answer since in most cases very few details are included in the district or synodical proceedings describing the cases. There are other cases I could have included but have not for the sake of time. They, too, describe removal of a teacher or pastor after he has "voluntarily resigned." Not many details are made available to us concerning these cases, either. Apparently, the leaders of early Missouri had no desire to overly embarrass those who were accused of sin or wrongdoing. For the sake of the sinner and to encourage repentance and possible return to the church, details were kept to a minimum so that should repentance occur, restoration could take place without undue embarrassment on the part of the penitent.

At any rate, what is clear from all of these cases is that people were not really removed, as much as they simply resigned. Is this evidence of an age in which sinners more readily recognized their wrongs, repented and did the right thing? I think not. Rather, I think it almost certain that in many of these cases, the one guilty of immorality or of false teaching simply "had things made clear to him." The case of Stephan who was charged both with immorality and false doctrine was, I am sure, still vivid enough in the minds of the people that they understood how immorality and false doctrine were viewed and dealt with. In other words, they understood they had a choice: resign voluntarily or be removed against your will. In either case the result was the same. Early Missouri tolerated neither immorality nor false doctrine on the part of its pastors and teachers and doctrinal purity was an extremely high priority.

Even a casual look at Synod's first constitution makes this fact abundantly clear. As one of the reasons for forming a synod, the constitution states: "The preservation and furthering of the unity of pure confession (Eph. 4:3-6; I Cor. 1:10) and to provide common defense against separatism and sectarianism. (Rom. 16:17)"(7)

As a condition of congregational membership in the Synod, the constitution naturally required "Acceptance of Holy Scripture . . . as the written word of God," and of the Lutheran Confessions "as the pure and unadulterated explanation and presentation of the Word of God."(8) It also stipulated the following: "Separation from all commixture of Church or faith, as, for example serving of mixed congregations by a servant of the Church; taking part in the service and Sacraments of heretical or mixed congregations; taking part in any heretical tract distribution and mission projects, etc."(9) The Synod also required of congregations,

The exclusive use of doctrinally pure church books. (Agenda, hymnals, readers, etc.) If it is impossible in some congregations to replace immediately the unorthodox hymnals and the like with orthodox ones, then the pastor of such a congregation can become a member of Synod only if he promises to use the unorthodox hymnal only under open protect and to strive in all seriousness for the introduction of an orthodox hymnal.(10)

In the section dealing with the execution of synodical business, the constitution states,

If it should happen that the president reports a pastor who after having been reprimanded several times by the President, by the particular congregation, and by the ministerium, yet continues in wrong doctrine or in an offensive life, then Synod in its entirety shall make the last attempt to turn him from the error of his ways. If, having been thus reprimanded, he does not listen to Synod, he shall be expelled . . . .(11)

Also interesting in the same section of the constitution is the following description of Synod's duties:

It is the duty of Synod to discuss and investigate in its annual convention which articles of church doctrine to emphasize or further especially, also against which heresies and weaknesses in life testimony is to be given and the manner in which this is to be done. In accordance with this, Synod is to pass judgment on the work of the editor of the synodical paper and to give him instructions for his future activity.(12)

I wish I could exhaust the riches of this first constitution in its attention to and insistence upon doctrinal purity but there is simply too much material to cover. Let me include just one more rather lengthy example that clearly displays the desire for pure doctrine and is particularly relevant to issues before the Missouri Synod today. In describing the business of Synod, the constitution states,

Synod holds in accordance with the 7th article of the Augsburg Confession that uniformity in ceremonies is not essential; yet on the other hand Synod deems such a uniformity wholesome and useful, namely for the following reasons:

    1. because a total difference in outward ceremonies would cause those who are weak in the unity of doctrine to stumble;
    2. because in dropping heretofore preserved usages the church is to avoid the appearance of and desire for innovation;

Furthermore Synod deems it necessary for the purification of the Lutheran Church in America, that the emptiness and the poverty in the externals of the service be opposed, which, having been introduced here by the false spirit of the Reformed, is now rampant. All pastors and congregations that wish to be recognized as orthodox by Synod are prohibited from adopting or retaining any ceremony which might weaken the confession of the truth or condone or strengthen a heresy, especially if heretics insist upon the continuation or the abolishing of such ceremonies.

The desired uniformity in the ceremonies is to be brought about especially by the adoption of sound Lutheran agendas (church books).

Synod as a whole is to supervise how each individual pastor cares for the souls in his charge. Synod, therefore, has the right of inquiry and judgment. Especially is Synod to investigate whether its pastors have permitted themselves to be misled into applying the so-called "New Measures" which have become prevalent here, or whether they care for their souls according to the sound Scriptural manner of the orthodox Church.(13)

Before I continue with the point I am presently pursuing, let me just point out that in the last words which I just read to you we see that the Synod is not reluctant to identify the so-called "New Measures" as illustrative of unorthodox, unlutheran worship. In fact, they stick it in the constitution! Now the "New Measures" of their day were very similar in concept and in doctrine to what we today call the "Church Growth Movement."

But what is the point I am making with these numerous references to the Missouri Synod's first constitution? There was a strong consensus among the founders of the Synod that the proclamation of pure doctrine was essential to the health and the life of the church. Nor were they embarrassed to say that there was such a thing as pure doctrine which could be known and therefore be proclaimed boldly. They were firmly convinced that the church lived, was nourished and grew from the preaching and teaching of the pure Word of God. And they were not reluctant to say that they had this pure Word. In 1873 in fact, C. F. W. Walther delivered an essay at the Western District Convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod entitled -- now listen to this, The Doctrine of the Lutheran Church Alone Gives All Glory to God, an Irrefutable Proof that its Doctrine Alone is True.(14) His presentation then provided a number of theses supporting the theme of the essay. Now listen to this -- for the next thirteen conventions of the Western District Walther continued his treatment of precisely the same theme until just a few months before his death. Of course Walther was not saying that there was no truth in other Christian churches, nor was he saying, God forbid, that only Lutherans could possess truth and be saved. But he was saying that the teachings of the Lutheran Church are true, and that wherever the teachings of other church bodies conflict with those of the Lutheran Church, their teachings are false and that such false teachings damage and destroy the church and cannot be permitted within an orthodox Lutheran church body.

Today it is popular to refer to oneself as a Lutheran Christian or a Methodist Christian. Accompanying such terms is the frequent assumption or statement that the different church bodies represent different faith traditions, all equally valid. In contrast to such a view, Walther delivered an address in 1866 to the Convention of the Missouri Synod with the title, The Evangelical Lutheran Church, the True Visible Church of God upon Earth. With this presentation Walther certainly did not wish to teach that all Christians are members of the Lutheran Church or that every member of the Lutheran Church is a Christian. Such nonsense would never have occurred to him. But he did mean to teach that the church has marks by which it can be known and identified as the true church of Christ; these marks are the pure teaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments rightly administered. The Evangelical Lutheran Church possesses these marks. Other churches do not or they possess them only partially or impurely. Where this is the case, such infidelity must be pointed out and dealt with. Walther clearly meant to teach, in common with Luther and in opposition to Erasmus,(15) that God's Word is clear, that it is not ambiguous, that doctrinal assertions can be made with the confidence that they are correct, that truth can be known and one can know that one has it. When it comes to doctrine, the line between truth and error is not vague or gray. Therefore when we make a confession of the faith in our creeds and symbols, we do so not with some nebulous hope that what we say may contain a kernel of truth. Rather we confess in the same spirit as the signers of the Formula of Concord who wrote concerning the confession they had made, " . . . [This] is our teaching, belief, and confession in which by God's grace we shall appear before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ and for which we shall give an account." (16)

Thus, early Missouri not only dealt with false doctrine in its midst but felt compelled to speak out about false doctrine outside its fellowship -- not out of a sense of pharisaical pride, but for the sake of the flock which needed to be warned against the wolves intent upon destruction. It is for this reason that Wilhelm Sihler so castigated the liberal General Synod in 1855:

The Eastern District of our Synod . . . will no doubt have to content itself with setting up the banner of uncompromised Lutheran confessionalism and of pure doctrine in the midst of the apostate, false brethren of the Reformed-methodistic, so called Lutheran General Synod. And neither, on account of the size and prestige of the General Synod, (will it) fail to testify as vigorously and as emphatically as necessary to any article of doctrine suppressed and falsified by this synod and to warn every Lutheran against this harmful leaven.(17)

These words sound harsh to today's ecumenical ears, but perhaps not as harsh as they did a few years ago before the ELCA established what amounts to full altar and pulpit fellowship with the Presbyterian Church USA, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church, before the ELCA stated its intentions of exploring full fellowship with the United Methodist Church and before the ELCA committed itself to the Joint Declaration on Justification and thus sacrificed on the altar of ecumenical fervor the article by which the church stands and falls and relinquished her right to call herself a daughter of the Reformation. What orthodox Lutheran can deny that a little more of the spirit of Sihler would be useful in the church today?

Nor was the Missouri Synod alone in warning its people against doctrinal laxity and error. It was not the only Lutheran church body that knew what it meant to be truly Lutheran. In 1867 my great-great-grandfather Herman Amberg Preus delivered a series of seven lectures in Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway, later printed in Gisle Johnson's Luthersk Kirketidende, to describe the conditions of the Norwegian Lutheran immigrants in America. At the time Herman Amberg Preus was the pastor of a Norwegian Lutheran church in Spring Prairie, Wisconsin and the president of the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (Den norsk-evangelisk-lutherske Kirke i Amerika) commonly known simply as the Norwegian Synod. In his lectures he attempted to show the living conditions of Norwegian immigrants, the religious context of America in which the Norwegian Lutheran churches had been planted, the confessional fidelity or the lack of it evident among the members of other Lutheran Scandinavian church bodies with which the Norwegians felt some kinship - and whatever else he thought might encourage the Lutherans in Norway to send desperately needed Lutheran pastors to America.

In spite of the fact that many in the Church of Norway considered the Norwegian Lutherans in America to be somewhat narrow-minded and argumentative, Preus did not hesitate to describe the doctrinal problems and controversies relevant to the American situation. In his sixth lecture he spoke about the lack of doctrinal unity in the Augustana Synod. "Our conferences with them have shown us that they are not united in even basic doctrines, but that their apparent unity is based in part on pure ignorance and in part on indifference which allows them to keep silent while their brethren in the synod preach quite contradictory, false doctrine."(18)

In this same lecture Preus speaks of the careless and unLutheran practice common in the Augustana Synod. For example, the Augustana Synod, " . . . has allowed its pastors to use the Reformed formula for the Lord's Supper and the conditional form of absolution . . .. It has allowed Methodist pastors to be teachers in its Sunday schools and a Congregationalist pastor to preach at the dedication of one of its churches. It has allowed prayer meetings and ‘revivals' to be conducted Methodist-fashion in its congregations."(19) After numerous other references to the unorthodox practice rampant in the Augustana Synod, Preus points to what he considers as one of the most serious problems of all.

The synod and its pastoral conferences have not only refused forceful invitations on our part to meet jointly with us, but they have even declined to discuss disputed doctrinal points with those among their own pastors who are troubled in conscience and have therefore requested that they do so.

In my opinion all this sufficiently demonstrates the indifference reigning in this synod, how it is all for extending itself and winning respect, how it therefore seeks to avoid strife and controversy and prefers to allow errors and abuses and departures from both the doctrine of the church and good Lutheran ecclesiastical order. There has entered in here a genuinely American speculative spirit, a spirit that does not ask whether something is right, but whether it is clever or ‘expedient.' Thus, in this synod, the Lutheran confession is in reality a display sign to decoy the naïve, since both its doctrine and its practice manifestly controvert this confession and God's Word.

That this spirit of indifference also holds sway in congregational life speaks for itself. It naturally happens that there is a reciprocal effect between congregations and the synod.(20)

Herman Amberg Preus, along with Ulrik Koren and others in the Norwegian Synod were struggling hard to establish an immigrant church in America that would be truly Lutheran. It is reasonable to conclude that the practices criticized by Herman Amberg Preus in the quotations just read were not tolerated in the early Norwegian Synod. The question, "When is enough enough?" was certainly not difficult for them to answer, given their doctrinal position, nor was their answer ambiguous.

But let me return for a bit to the subject of church discipline in the Missouri Synod because I don't want to leave you with an incomplete picture of the situation. To sum up what we already discussed earlier. The early Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod carried out church discipline conscientiously in accord with principles laid out in Scripture. Because their commitment to Scripture was so strong and their doctrinal position so clear, those placed under church discipline frequently resigned "voluntarily" when guilty of immorality or when their doctrinal position was contrary to that of Missouri. There was little question as to what would happen if they did not resign.

I do not want to leave you with the impression, however, that the way early Missouri dealt with doctrinal issues was not evangelical or was heartless. Yes, they were committed to retaining their pure doctrine. They were also reasonable and patient in their approach. A few examples are in order to demonstrate this point. The case of Pastor E.M. Bürger is one which demonstrates clearly the willingness to be patient and work through issues in a Christian manner. Bürger had been among those who immigrated to the United States and settled in Perry County in 1839. In the aftermath of the doctrinal confusion following Stephan's deposal, Bürger had come to the conclusion that the immigration had been wrong, and that the validity of his own call and ministry were in question. In this state of mind he decided to return to Germany. On his way, while he was still in America a group of Buffalo, New York Lutherans who had been excommunicated by Grabau issued him a call. He established that they had been unjustly excommunicated and accepted the call to be their pastor. He then petitioned the Missouri Synod to recognize and affirm the call. However, several members of his previous congregation in Perry County had accused him of false doctrine and of unjustly excommunicating them. Bürger admitted that he had not spoken and acted with enough Christian wisdom and that he may have given the impression that he was the highest court in the church, though publicly he had stated his conviction to the contrary. His accusers on the other hand, admitted that they had acted contrary to the law of love and dropped their charges against him. The Synod concluded in the very first synodical convention in 1847 that Bürger had not been guilty of false doctrine or willful sin or unfaithfulness in his office. They urged him to accept the call he had received from the people in Buffalo and resolved to accept him into voting membership in the synod.(21) All in all, a wonderful and God-pleasing resolution of what had been serious issues.

The example of teacher Knoche demonstrates that the early synod leaders could certainly be reasonable. His conduct became a concern because although he was a member of the Synod, he taught in the school of a heterodox church body. The Synod found in 1860 that Knoche had stipulated he taught only Lutheranism, he belonged to a congregation of the Missouri Synod and he partook of the Sacrament only in his Missouri Synod congregation. There was, therefore, nothing amiss.(22)

The case of Pastor Georg Albert Schieferdecker is notable for a number of reasons. There is a great deal of documentation; it demonstrates the Synod's insistence upon dealing with doctrinal issues; it shows the patient and charitable approach taken by the Synod in dealing with those who were in disagreement with Synod's doctrine. I will confine myself to the bare essentials of the case.

Schieferdecker was the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Altenburg, Perry County Missouri. Early in 1856 he preached a sermon in which he promoted chiliastic (or millennialistic) views for which he was strongly criticized by members of his congregation. As a result of the criticism he had received, he asked the 1856 convention of the Western District, of which he was then president, to address the issue. After lengthy debate, the convention "condemned chiliasm as unscriptural."(23) The convention also stated that chiliasm is not church dividing so long as the one who holds it neither teaches it nor spreads it. At the same time the District insisted that it had a duty to convince chiliasts in its midst that their position is unscriptural. Between then and the synodical convention the following year, Synodical President Wyneken tried to bring Schieferdecker back to a scriptural position both through correspondence and by meeting with him, but Schieferdecker remained firm in his position. In February 1857 Wyneken even invited Schieferdecker to a four day consultation with himself, C.F.W. Walther and some of the other seminary professors. Schieferdecker accepted but was still not convinced he was in error.

At the synodical convention in 1857 Schieferdecker asked the Synod to overturn the Western District's condemnation of chiliasm. The convention refused and held an investigation of Schieferdecker's views instead. In each aspect of his position about which he was questioned Schieferdecker was permitted to think through his answers overnight if he so desired. After a great deal of debate, the entire matter was turned over to a committee consisting of the four district presidents, the seminary professors, and one delegate from each district.(24) The committee concluded that "since Schieferdecker was casting aside articles of faith in favor of his chiliastic views, he was no longer on the same footing of faith with Synod and that Synod therefore deemed it necessary to withdraw the hand of fellowship from him."(25) The convention then upheld the findings of the committee and expelled Schieferdecker from the Synod.

Two final points are worth noting. First, after the convention synodical officials visited Schieferdecker's congregation to see whether they approved of his expulsion. Two thirds of the congregation did; Schieferdecker was relieved of duty and left with his supporters to start a new congregation. Second, after he was expelled Schieferdecker asked whether the Synod would consider reinstating him should he ever return to the doctrinal position of the Synod in regard to chiliasm. The Synod assured him that such would be the case and indeed, eighteen years later, he did recognize and admit his error and was readmitted to the Synod in 1875.

At this point I would like to provide a number of observations concerning church discipline in the early Missouri Synod and then bring this part of my presentation to a close. First of all, every case suggesting the need for discipline was met with an investigation into the facts of the case and into theological issues raised by the case and an abundant amount of evidence of heterodoxy or of wrongdoing was needed in order to remove someone from office and to exclude him from synod.

Second, pastors and teachers found guilty of sinful behavior were repeatedly admonished, first privately and then in public. Those who did not repent were excluded from the synod. Those who did repent typically resigned from office and the synod simply left matters at that. Absolution, of course, took place.

Third, pastors and teachers found guilty of false teaching were also urged to repent of their error. Those who did not repent were excluded from synod; those who did repent were welcomed back with open arms.

When was enough enough for those in early Missouri? Where did they draw their boundaries, so to speak, and how do those boundaries compare to those we seem to have drawn today? What was their definition of what it meant to be Lutheran and how does it compare to ours today? I suppose we could stick our heads in the sand and say that church discipline today is being carried out pretty much the same way it was then, our boundaries appear to be about the same, we are certainly as conscientious today as they were then in identifying false teaching and practice and putting a halt to it. And surely such a view is the one many would like to hear. But nobody who studies our history and looks at the state of our church today could possibly believe it. I don't think that there is any question that what we are willing to tolerate today far exceeds what early Missouri would have put up with and I do not believe it is because we are more evangelical or charitable or reasonable or civilized or enlightened. No, I think there is another reason and I am afraid that it is summed up in the words of Jesus to the church in Ephesus as recorded in the book of Revelation: "I have this against you, that your love is not what it was at first." Rev. 2:4 Now I honestly do not mean to indict specific individuals when I say this. I think our entire Missouri Synod needs to look at these words of Jesus and we need to ask ourselves. Are we becoming Ephesians whose love is not what it was at first?

About seven years ago, I think, I was at a professional church workers conference somewhere in the mountains west of Denver. I was sitting at the dinner table with two friends and we were talking about the Lord's Supper. We had discussed the Reformed position and its denial of the real presence and therefore of everything which our Lord Jesus gives us in the Sacrament; we had discussed the Roman Catholic position which views the priest as making an unbloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ to the father for the sins of the living and the dead; and we were in the process of talking about the Lutheran view and how comforting it was to us to know that our sins were truly forgiven for how could it be otherwise when the Lord Jesus gives us his own true body and blood with which on the cross he purchased our forgiveness. A pastor sitting on the other side of the table said to us, "Do you guys have to talk shop?" We were stunned and silent for about as long as pastors are generally able to be silent which is, I guess, about two or three seconds and then in unison without even looking at each other, we said, "Yes!" For the rest of the meal this guy didn't say anything else. But think for a moment about the attitude revealed by his question. "Do you have to talk shop?" Why would there ever be a time when I would not want to talk about that which defines my very existence as a Christian -- the grace which has been poured out on my by my Savior Jesus Christ? But maybe I need to pay attention to this man's question, not that I will ever appreciate it or share its sentiment. But perhaps that man -- I'm reluctant to refer to him as a pastor -- perhaps that man was simply expressing honestly an attitude that many others also hold but will not express, an attitude that is far more prevalent in the Missouri Synod than most of us would care to believe. Do we dare to ask the question of ourselves -- and about our synod, "Is our love still what it was at first?" And if we are afraid to ask the question, then we are really in trouble!

I believe that Lutherans all over the world today are having an identity crisis. Why are you even asking the question, "When is enough enough?" It's because Lutherans don't know what it means to be Lutheran anymore. And although I'm not just talking about the ELCA here, the situation in the ELCA has in fact become so serious that the faculty of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne at one point brought an overture, that is a request for action, to the Missouri Synod's Convention asking the delegates, in view of the doctrinal errors common in the ELCA and the fellowship practiced with others who teach false doctrine, to declare, "That, apart from local protests amounting to a genuine 'state of confession,' the LCMS cannot regard or treat the pulpits and altars of the ELCA as confessionally Lutheran, in the sense of the Book of Concord, but must recognize them as heterodox, union pulpits and altars."(26) The Convention did not adopt this overture. Instead, while recognizing the differences existing between the two church bodies, the Missouri Synod delegates adopted a resolution much milder in tone, one which did not call into question the Lutheran identity of the ELCA.(27)

In 1995 a congregation of the Missouri Synod submitted an overture to the convention stating that if the ELCA would declare fellowship with certain Reformed church bodies in America, she would thereby, "cease to be Lutheran in any meaningful, confessional sense."(28) However, once again the convention of the Missouri Synod, though expressing grave concern about developments in the ELCA, declined to call into question the Lutheran identity of the ELCA. (29)

In 1998 the relationship between the Missouri Synod and the ELCA became even more strained when the ELCA did declare pulpit and altar fellowship with the Presbyterian Church in the USA, the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ. Her obvious intention to sign the Joint Declaration on Justification added fuel to the fire. A number of overtures were submitted to the 1998 Missouri Synod convention which stated that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America had sacrificed her Lutheran character. The ELCA has " . . . further confused the understanding of what it means to be a Lutheran Church body in this country," said an overture from one of our pastoral conferences.(30) " . . . [T]he LCMS cannot regard or treat the pulpits and the altars of the ELCA as confessionally Lutheran in the sense of the Book of Concord, but must recognize them as heterodox, union pulpits and altars," said an overture from one of our congregations.(31) Another overture from a pastoral conference, "Resolved, that we acknowledge that the ELCA has abandoned Lutheran doctrine and forfeited the name Lutheran to become a union church."(32) Three congregations signed an overture which, "Resolved, that the LCMS declare in convention and in its publications that it no longer recognizes the ELCA as a Lutheran Church body."(33) Another overture suggested that the Missouri Synod, "withdraw recognition of the ELCA as a legitimate Lutheran church."(34) Finally Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne once again requested that the Missouri Synod address the issue of the ELCA's departure from Lutheran doctrine and practice and called into question "the Lutheran character of the ELCA."(35) The Synodical Convention passed what some would consider a decent resolution which expressed "deep regret and profound disagreement with these actions taken by the ELCA."(36) However, the convention continued its established pattern of avoiding the issue of Lutheran identity which had been raised in so many of the overtures to the convention. Apparently we are willing to condemn specific teachings and practices of another church body, but unwilling to define in a clear and direct way what it means to be Lutheran.

Am I making too much of this reluctance of the Missouri Synod to identify the ELCA as unlutheran? I don't think so. No less than six overtures in 1998 alone addressed the issue of Lutheran identity but the resolution adopted by the Convention did not. We were willing to say that the teachings of the ELCA were wrong but for years we have backed away from saying to those who in their doctrine and practice are not Lutheran, "You are not Lutheran!"

Why? Is it possible that we no longer know what it means to be Lutheran? I do not mean to say that nobody in our churches knows what it means. But is it possible that the vast majority of Lutherans in all of our Lutheran churches have such a fuzzy notion of what it means to be specifically Lutheran, that whenever the issue of Lutheran identity rises, we hit a brick wall? We simply don't know how to deal with it. Since we no longer know how to define what Lutheranism is, we are incapable of determining whether a church body is genuinely Lutheran or not.

In the ELCA today the vast majority of the people and a larger majority of their leaders have lost the sense of their identity as Lutherans or at least have a definition of the word "Lutheran" vastly different from that of their spiritual forefathers. Consider for a moment the decision of the ELCA to declare fellowship with three Reformed church bodies in America.

The very foundation of Christianity, the doctrine of justification is involved. For Lutherans to permit Reformed to Lutheran altars is to show contempt (whether knowingly or not) for the doctrine of justification by grace, because such "Lutherans" are saying, are they not, that it makes little difference whether one sees participation in the Lord's Supper as an act of obedience to the law or as a believing reception of the grace of God and participation in the atoning death of Jesus. To take such a position is an incredible mockery of Christ whose last will and testament the Lord's Supper is.

But this kind of attitude which sacrifices the Gospel on the altar of a false ecumenism jeopardizes the survival of Christianity itself. Hermann Sasse saw this clearly and expresses himself on the subject far more eloquently than I can do. Sasse had lived and been trained and ordained in the Prussian Union Church and was well acquainted with the destruction caused by a false union of two opposing confessions as had happened in the German territorial churches via the Prussian Union. In an essay entitled Union and Confession Sasse refers to what he calls the "pious lie."

Lies have been told in the church because of cowardice and weakness, vanity and avarice. But beyond all these there is in the church one particularly sweet piece of fruit on the broad canopy of the tree of lies. This is the pious lie. It is the hypocrisy by which a man lies to others and the intellectual self-deception by which he lies to himself . . . . The most fearful thing about the pious lie is that it will lie not only to men, but also to God in prayer, in confession, in the Holy Supper, in the sermon, and in theology.(37)

According to Sasse, the pious lie which devastated Lutheranism in Germany was a lie which for the sake of ecumenical ends permitted opposing confessions (in the form of the Lutheran and the Reformed - particularly in regard to the Lord's Supper) to stand side by side with equal validity within the same church. And this is relevant to the Missouri Synod because you know as well as I do that there are pastors among us who practice open communion. But what is the result when a church officially adopts the 'pious lie'?

Sasse laments the inability of the Prussian Union church to identify and fight doctrinal error and he makes it clear where such lack of attention to error will finally lead.

That false doctrine must be fought, and that there could be no church fellowship where there was no unity on the basic understanding of the Gospel -- that was indeed an understanding which had been learned from Luther, and which neither the Old Lutheran Church nor the Evangelical Lutheran Church of later times could have given up. Whoever does give it up -- as the Enlightenment and Pietism did -- abandons the Reformation.(38)

Has the ecumenistic, relativistic spirit of our postmodern time been so pervasive in its influence on Lutheranism that the Reformation itself is being lost in Lutheran churches? Unfortunately, yes. Churches which historically have been Lutheran are Lutheran no longer, except in name. Hermann Sasse wrote regarding the Prussian Union of 1817,

The church which came into existence on 31 October in Potsdam was no longer the Old Lutheran Church of Brandenburg-Prussia of the time of Paul Gerhardt. Nor was it any longer the Reformed Church of the great elector. In reality, it was a new church, the Prussian territorial Church so long desired, the soul of the Prussian state which was rising in greatness and coming into global political significance.(39)

In 1998 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America established a new relationship with certain Reformed churches in North America. She was not forced to do so as was the case in Prussia. Rather, she embraced the ideology of the Prussian Union willingly, with open arms. Having done so, does she even know she is no longer the church she once was? She is no longer the church of the Lutheran Reformation. She has abandoned the Reformation.

Can there really be any doubt whatsoever about this fact when one considers what will happen tomorrow [October 31, 1999], in fact about seventeen hours from now, in Augsburg? Representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and other Lutheran bodies and representatives of the church of Rome will sign together that document entitled Joint Declaration on Justification, and thereby declare to all the world that the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics have reached consensus on the article of justification. In the dishonest and treasonous act of adopting this declaration, the Reformation is abandoned and the flock of Christ is viciously attacked by those who bear the name Lutheran. Never mind that the Roman church since the time of the Reformation has not changed its position on Purgatory, the sacrifice of the mass, the merits of the saints, works of supererogation; never mind that the dogma of the infallibility of the pope, adopted long after the Reformation, stands as strongly as ever and that the veneration of Mary is more vigorously promoted by this pope who believes she is co-redemptrix than by any other in recent memory; never mind that the present pope is offering new indulgences to the faithful; never mind that the Roman church still views grace as an infused quality which gives the Christian the ability to please God with his works rather than as God's gracious disposition of favor toward the completely undeserving sinner; never mind that none of the blasphemous anathemas of Trent has been retracted, anathemas which condemn to Hell the doctrine of justification central to your faith. These doctrinal matters are all ignored and sacrificed once again on the altar of ecumenical fervor and the "pious lie". Hermann Sasse correctly pointed out that in the enforcement of the Prussian Union, it was the Lutherans who lost everything. In the adoption of the Joint Declaration on Justification it is once again the Lutherans who lose everything. For when truth meets falsehood in compromise only truth can be the loser.

I repeat, the ELCA is no longer Lutheran. She has abandoned the Reformation. And I am distressed by the fact that the Missouri Synod is apparently unwilling to say this. But then we are having our own identity crisis. It is only fair and right to point this out. We have not declared fellowship with any heterodox church bodies. On the other hand, we have many pastors who routinely give the Lord's Supper to those of heterodox church bodies and they are not disciplined in any way. Pastors conduct joint worship services with pastors of other heterodox church bodies and nothing happens.

We are definitely experiencing an identity crisis in the area of worship. For the sake of what is called "church growth," many of our churches are opting for a worship experience which is anything but Lutheran. Our rich Lutheran hymns are being replaced by Baptist or charismatic songs or by theologically empty ditties. Pastors preach in suits, the historic creeds are replaced or rewritten, sermons have in many cases given place to inspirational speeches, and the confession and absolution are often omitted. Some congregations have literally abandoned the liturgy completely and the time together on Sunday morning which we once called worship would now more accurately be described as entertainment. On the other side are pastors who view ordination as sacramental and for whom Rome and Constantinople definitely hold an attraction.

Can anyone deny that Missouri is also going through an identity crisis of her own? And nobody really knows what the Missouri Synod will be like 20 years from now. We have our task cut out for us and it is a task which focuses around doctrine. And because we are Lutherans who know that the Gospel and the Sacraments are God's means of grace, we know that the church that loses its doctrine dies. Therefore, the primary battles we must fight as members of the church militant are always doctrinal. Thus it is only when we strive to eliminate and condemn doctrinal error and preserve doctrinal purity that we demonstrate true love for Christ's church. And in this endeavor we have something to learn from Luther and the orthodox Lutheran theologians and we have something to learn from the founders of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and it is this: their love for doctrine, their conviction that doctrine comes from God, that it is therefore precious, that it brings life and salvation to a dying world.

I conclude by asking you to listen to the voice of a few of these Lutherans. Listen to the voice of Georg Stöckhardt in 1888:

Today there are still such radical heretics, pernicious foes, who deliberately, with all the powers at their disposal, contend against the truth and campaign and propagandize for the lie. Of course, not all who spread abroad false doctrine are that evil and malicious. But without further ceremony we question the faith and Christianity of every teacher who deviates from the truth. In heterodox church bodies there certainly are many pastors who although ensnared in the errors of their sects, are very sincere, who themselves are misled and deluded rather than making it their business to mislead others, who blindly follow the church leaders since they really don't know what they are doing. Nevertheless, in every case false doctrine is a soul-corrupting poison, no matter from whose mouth it is spewed.(40)

Listen to the voice of an early member of the Norwegian Synod whose leaders had been called rabid because of their zeal for pure doctrine:

I shall admit that especially in the beginning after we in the Norwegian Synod had become straight on the doctrine, there may have been something among us which, viewed superficially, appeared to be such a ‘rabies.' . . . [But] I have no doubt that something has often been called ‘rabies' which in reality was nothing else than the zeal of a faithful theologian for the pure doctrine of God's word, but which may have been displayed in a somewhat ill-timed and annoying way. And finally, I prefer, especially in teachers of the church, even this glowing ‘rabies' to the ice-cold ‘indifferentia theologorum,' which considers one thing as good as another and like Cain, asks: ‘Am I my brother's keeper?'(41)

Listen to the voice of F. Bente who in 1923 delivered the essay for the Missouri Synod convention in 1923 in Fort Wayne:

The "spirit of Missouri" has frequently been spoken of with aversion. But the truth is that the spirit of our fathers was in every respect none other than the sincere, serious, straightforward, and earnest spirit of our early confessors themselves, Luther included.

Indeed, our fathers were both faithful Bible Christians and genuine Lutherans, and the latter not in addition to, but because of, the former. Genuine Lutherans, -- for they adhered most faithfully to the doctrines set forth in our symbols. True Bible Christians,-- for they adopted these symbols only because they had found them to be drawn from the Word of God, which alone they recognized as the final and infallible norm of Christian truth.(42)

We who wish to be and remain children of the Reformation -- can we not continue to speak with the voice of our fathers, a voice that is unashamed to call itself Lutheran? After all, we believe that Lutheran is Christian, that Lutheran is evangelical, that Lutheran is ecumenical in the true sense for the Holy Spirit brings true unity to the church only by means of the pure Word and Sacraments. Dear Father, guide us by Your Word and Spirit that we may remain your faithful children. Thy Kingdom come. Amen.


  1. Synodical Proceedings, 1848, 25.
  2. Synodical Proceedings, 1849, 5.
  3. Western District Proceedings, 1858, 35. The translation from the German is mine.
  4. Synodical Proceedings, 1860, 28.
  5. Synodical Proceedings, 1863, 27.
  6. Central District Proceedings, 1867.
  7. W. G. Polack, Ed., "Our First Synodical Constitution." Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Vol. 16, no. 1, (April, 1943) p. 2. The original constitution, of course, was in German. References to the constitution in this paper are from an English translation.
  8. Ibid., p. 3.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., p. 6.
  12. Ibid., p. 7.
  13. Ibid., pp. 11-13.
  14. Selected Writings of C.F.W. Walther: Convention Essays, Aug. R. Suelflow, Translator, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1981), p. 11.
  15. See J.I. Packer & O.R. Johnston, The Bondage of the Will, (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1957) or Luther's Works, E. Theodore Bachmann & Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), XXXIII.
  16. The Book of Concord, Theodore Tappert, ed., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), p. 636 (SD XII.40).
  17. Carl S. Meyer, E., Moving Frontiers, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964). p. 254.
  18. Vivacious Daughter: Seven Lectures on the religious situation among Norwegians in America by Herman Amberg Preus, Todd W. Nichol, ed., (Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1990), 152.
  19. Ibid., 152.
  20. Ibid., 153.
  21. Synodical Proceedings, 1847, pp. 11-13.
  22. Synodical Proceedings, 1860, p. 78.
  23. August Suelflow, Georg Albert Schieferdecker and his Relation to Chiliasm in the Iowa Synod, unpublished Bachelor of Divinity thesis, Concordia Seminary (St. Louis, MO), May, 1946, p. 35.
  24. Ibid., p. 70.
  25. Ibid., pp 70-71.
  26. Reports and Overtures of the 57th Regular Convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 178-179.
  27. Convention Proceedings of the 57th Regular Convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 115.
  28. Reports and Overtures of the 59th Regular Convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 156-157.
  29. Convention Proceedings of the 59th Regular Convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 125-126.
  30. Reports and Overtures of the 60th Regular Convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 165.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid., 166.
  33. Ibid., 167.
  34. Ibid., 169.
  35. Ibid., 168
  36. Convention Proceedings, of the 60th Regular Convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 116-117.
  37. Hermann Sasse, Christ and His Church, Essays by Hermann Sasse, (St. Louis: Office of the President, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, 1997) Vol. I, Union and Confession, 1-2.
  38. Ibid., 50-51.
  39. Ibid., 13.
  40. Daniel Woodring, "Karl Georg St”ckhardt: His Life and Labor," Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly, Vol. 72, no. 1 (Spring, 1999), 58.
  41. George O. Lillegard, ed., Faith of our Fathers, (Lutheran Synod Book Co.: Mankato, Minnesota, 1953), pp. 52-53.
  42. F. Bente, Following the Faith of our Fathers: Convention Essay, June, 1923, (Holy Cross Press; St. Charles, Mo. Undated), p. 6.

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