First in a Series of Three Articles

“How are things in Glocca Morra?” asks Sharon in Finian’s Rainbow. The answer is “Grandish” for an Irish lass whose utopia is the green of Erin. Evangelicals will be saddened to learn that in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, once a utopian model of conservative theology (as represented by such luminaries as Walther and Pieper) and of missionary zeal (one thinks especially of Walter Maier), things are now far from grandish.

They are, in fact, compromisish; and so serious is the problem on doctrinal, ecumenical, and administrative levels that unless the forthcoming Convention of the Church at Denver in July reverses the trend, Missouri will certainly go the way of all flesh: into irreversible theological confusion and unionistic indifferentism.

Is it really possible that doctrinal disunity now characterizes the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a church body whose hallmark has been rigorous adherence to Reformation confessions as true expressions of the teaching of the inerrant Scriptures? Here is the depressing answer of the greatest living orthodox Lutheran dogmatician, Hermann Sasse, formerly of Erlangen and now a professor of theology in Australia: “It is exactly twenty years that I set out from Germany for St. Louis to discover with deep disappointment that your church was divided. Through all these years I have shared the grave concern of the conservatives in your church. My prayer is that Denver will mean a turning point. There will be a new presidency. If this is to be only a repetition of the politics of uncertainty and compromise, it would mean the fall of the last great confessional Church” (communication of May 13, 1968).

In the 1940s, a cloud no larger than a man’s hand arose in Missouri in the so-called “Chicago Statement of the 44,” a manifesto of clergy dissatisfied with the synod’s strict position on church fellowship. The “Statementarians” had some good points to make, but their real concerns went far beyond the fellowship issue; they desired a Missouri Synod in which more emphasis would be placed on ecumenical involvement. The synod administration did not air the problem or deal with it decisively. It was swept under the rug by persuading all concerned to “withdraw” (but not retract) the Chicago Statement (pastoral letter of President Behnken, January 18, 1947). The consequence was the established presence of an informal but articulate “liberal” faction in Missouri, devoted to modernization.

Article continues below

In the intervening years, those of liberalizing mind-set have vastly increased their influence, particularly in the administrative and publications echelons of the excessively centralized denomination, and in its two major educational institutions: Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and Concordia Teachers College, River Forest, Illinois.

So fractured is doctrinal unity in Missouri that a group of Eastern District liberals has actually formulated a resolution to make Missouri a full member of the NCC, LWF, and WCC on the ground that “it is utter audacity to assume that unified orthodoxy (or theological agreement) is even a remote possibility within our own Synod.”

The Missouri Synod has been particularly noteworthy both for its uncompromising stand on biblical inerrancy (in line with the Lutheran Formula of Concord, which expressly states, following Luther, that “God’s Word alone is and should remain the only standard and rule, to which the writings of no man should be regarded equal, but to it everything should be subordinated”), and for its insistence on the verbal proclamation of the propositional, biblical Gospel through a Christian school system and by all available communications media. Now, however, both the message and its clear proclamation are under question.

The doctrine of scriptural inerrancy is outrightly denied by some Missouri Synod clergymen (e.g., Robert Scharlemann), and no disciplinary action is taken. Professors such as Walter Bouman at River Forest and Robert H. Smith at St. Louis distinguish the “scholastic” inerrancy view of traditional Missouri theology from their own allegedly “evangelical” view of the Bible. Writes Smith in the October, 1968, Lutheran Forum: “In the scholastic view the Bible alone is inspired and inerrant, and it is therefore the sole authority in all matters of doctrine, history, science, and what have you. In the confessional or evangelical view every Christian is inspired when he believes in and bears witness to Jesus as Lord.”

The effect of this downgrading of the Bible has been a corresponding lack of confidence in presenting its propositional message. Thus Dr. John Elliott, in a series of lectures at Missouri’s annual Mission Institute in 1966, offered a non-verbal approach to evangelism that seriously confused the Gospel with social action. At the close of the institute, one of the most respected communications specialists in the Synod, Dr. Herman Gockel (author of What Jesus Means to Me), wrote to Professor Elliott: “The position which you have taken in this respect is untenable.” And Elliott himself, after a meeting on the subject with the undersigned and others, wrote quite frankly of the “manifestation of two quite different, if not irreconcilable, approaches toward the understanding and interpretation of both the Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Symbols.”

Article continues below

Prior to the 1967 Convention of the Missouri Synod in New York, the Free Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland sent a fraternal warning to her sister church in America. One of the closing paragraphs of that monitum well expresses the path Missouri must take if her present doctrinal situation is to be remedied:

“The witness of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod during the past decades, resulting especially from internal unity, has echoed throughout the world. Now, that unity has disappeared and it is openly stated that a portion of the Synod is conservative, a portion, super-conservative, and a portion, liberal. Nevertheless, the Confessions prescribe agreement in doctrine as a necessary qualification for the preservation of the unity of the church. We believe that the prevailing situation can be corrected only with the help of efficient, objective, doctrinal discipline, which God has commanded and for which He has provided the weapons (1 Pet. 4:11; Gal. 1:8; 5:9; 2 Cor. 6:14; Tit. 3:10, 11 etc.). If the great majority (some believe as much as 90 per cent) of the Synod is still obedient to God’s Word, it should not be impossible to restore doctrinal unity. If all those faithful to God’s Word join the fight against liberalism and ecumenism and choose as their weapon the doctrinal discipline prescribed by God’s Word, the precious heritage of the Reformation will be saved and Christ’s name will be glorified among us.”


(The second article in this series will appear in the March 28 issue, the third June 6.)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.