The biennium between the 1967 and 1969 conventions of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod can be regarded as a twofold anniversary—tenth and fiftieth—of the synod’s involvement in the quest for Lutheran unity on the American scene. In the view of most observers this quest will reach a decisive climax for the Missouri Synod at its Denver convention this July when the church’s delegates vote on a recommendation of its president and council of district presidents to declare pulpit and altar fellowship with the American Lutheran Church.
It was ten years ago, at the San Francisco convention of 1959, that the synod instructed its committee on doctrinal unity to meet with representatives of the American Lutheran Church (then just in process of formation) “for the purpose of seeking a God-pleasing unity and fellowship.” For its part, the American Lutheran Church—formally established in 1961 by a merger of the former American Lutheran Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church—was quick to move in the same direction. In keeping with the stipulation of its Articles of Union (1958) that “official negotiations already established [with other Lutheran churches]” be continued after the merger, the new American Lutheran Church at its founding convention in 1960 directed its officials to meet with representatives of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for unity discussions.
The importance of this accent on the continuity of the recently concluded negotiations with those that were carried on previously should not be overlooked.
When the 1967 Missouri Synod convention adopted a resolution declaring “that the Scriptural and Confessional basis for altar and pulpit fellowship [with the ALC] exists,” it could look back on a road that had taken exactly fifty years to travel. In 1917 the synod, responding to widespread desire for Lutheran unity, had appointed a committee to seek doctrinal agreement with other Lutheran bodies, among them several that later were to merge to form the first ALC (1930).
Each decade that followed this small beginning in 1917 saw the production of at least one statement of doctrinal agreement between representatives of the negotiating churches. But for various reasons the delegate-conventions declined to establish church fellowship on this basis. A complicating factor in each instance was that one or the other of the negotiating bodies was at the same time discussing unity or merger with one or more other Lutheran churches.
Despite the failure to achieve church fellowship during these years, to many Missourians it was becoming increasingly clear that total dedication to the cause of Christian unity is an essential element not only of the Lutheran heritage but also of Missouri’s own history and tradition, strongly shaped as it was by the influence of C. F. W. Walther (1811–87). It was Walther, they recalled, who issued the first public call for free conferences to “promote and advance the efforts towards the final establishment of one single Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.”
One important consequence, therefore, of the many years of apparently unsuccessful discussions was the synod’s decision in 1956 to clarify its own understanding of interchurch relations. Accordingly, the convention of that year authorized an intensive restudy of the whole question of church fellowship in the light of Scripture, the Lutheran confessions, and Christian history. This decade-long study was concluded when the synod in 1967 adopted a position paper entitled “Theology of Fellowship.”
Central to the position that this document elaborates in detail is the declaration that “the basis for pulpit and altar fellowship … is set forth in Augustana [the primary confession of Lutheranism], Art. VII: ‘and to the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.’ ”
That this is no reductionist principle is made clear in the report of the synod’s theology and church-relations commission presented to the same convention (1967):
The Augsburg Confession makes the preaching of the Gospel according to a pure understanding of it and the administration of the Sacraments in accordance with the Divine Word the only absolute doctrinal demands for church unity. Since this article is speaking of “true spiritual unity, without which there can be no faith in the heart nor righteousness in the heart before God,” it is not in the first instance a programmatic statement for the establishment of denominational fellowship. Nevertheless, it has important implications for the latter. A true understanding of the Gospel, and therefore correct preaching of the Gospel, calls for a correct understanding of the articles of faith treated in the Augsburg Confession, defended in its Apology, and explained in the remaining Lutheran Confessions, particularly the Formula of Concord. All articles of faith are integrally related to the Gospel and articulate the Gospel from different perspectives. Consequently the preaching of the Gospel according to a pure understanding of it is not possible where any article of faith is either falsified or denied.
The foremost article of faith, Lutherans hold, is that of justification by faith, which in effect comprises the entire doctrine of the Gospel. On this point the “Theology of Fellowship” endorses the statement of a leading theologian of the synod: “[Lutherans] regard the entire corpus doctrinae as bound up inextricably with justification. All doctrines have their place in this doctrine. All doctrines stand or fall with the doctrine of justification.”
It is against the background of this understanding as well as the whole history of previous negotiations that the recently concluded series of discussions between the LC-MS and the ALC needs to be understood. The commissioners of the two churches quickly agreed that enough joint doctrinal statements already existed. Instead of drafting still another, they chose to follow a procedure they felt was commended by the Lutheran Confessions and in keeping with the principle laid down by Walther a century ago: “The orthodox church is to be judged principally by the common, orthodox, and public confession to which the members acknowledge themselves to have been pledged and which they profess.” In short, they resolved that they would jointly study the Lutheran confessions (to which both church bodies unanimously subscribe) in the light of Holy Scripture to learn whether in fact their churches “agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments,” since it is this agreement that is both necessary and “sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church” (Augsburg Confession VII, 2).
Accordingly, they undertook first a common study of the material principle of the Lutheran faith, namely, grace alone; then a study of the formal principle, Scripture alone; and finally, since the objective was church fellowship, a study of the doctrine of the Church as confessed in the Book of Concord.
As was to be expected, no significant point of Christian doctrine was left untouched in the discussions that revolved about these three salient topics. The documents that came out of the discussions were not statements of doctrine or new articles of agreement but simply an articulate reflection of the unanimous consensus that the churches’ representatives discovered in the understanding of the Gospel as the Lutheran confessions give expression to it. The essays setting forth this consensus were distributed to the congregations and the clergy of both the LC-MS and the ALC.
In a final session held in January, 1967, the commissioners addressed themselves to some unresolved issues, specifically to certain recognized diversities in the application of doctrine to practice. They suggested how the churches might handle these issues—which were held not to be divisive of fellowship—in a way that would be consistent for evangelical Lutherans who are committed to the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions.
With their assignment completed, the joint commissioners presented their findings to the participating church bodies. The Missouri Synod’s 1967 convention accepted the findings of the joint commission and declared “that the Scriptural and Confessional basis for altar and pulpit fellowship between The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and The American Lutheran Church exists.”
The convention further directed “that the Synod proceed to take the necessary steps toward full realization of altar and pulpit fellowship with The American Lutheran Church,” and that its officials “make arrangements for promoting the widest possible mutual recognition of the doctrinal consensus and its implications for church fellowship among the entire membership of the Synod.” In the past two years therefore this topic has been made a primary agenda item for pastoral and district conferences within the synod as well as for meetings between district presidents, theological faculties, pastors, and congregations of both church bodies.
A summary of official reports from the synod’s constituency shows that in almost all areas where the issue was studied and discussed, 67 to 75 per cent of the congregations found they agreed that the scriptural and confessional basis for fellowship exists. About 75 per cent agreed that such consensus should lead to the practice of fellowship.
The formal recommendation to declare fellowship will be presented to the synod’s July convention by its president, Dr. Oliver R. Harms. This present report may therefore appropriately conclude with a quotation from an address President Harms delivered last September to the council of district presidents:
I am constrained to take note of the world in which we move toward the place and time of decision concerning fellowship. While exaggerations come easily and cheaply in our day, it seems no exaggeration to say that seldom have need and opportunity merged more clearly to call for a soundly confessional Lutheran witness. It was this witness that once shook the church and the world. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, sounding out over the thunder of God’s wrath as He speaks with His mouth and with His hands, is still the dynamite God made it to be. He has entrusted it to our care and use. For the sake of that Gospel, for the sake of the church, and for the sake of the world we have come to a time and place where we must act as only faith and love can act.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.