Toward an understanding of the issues in the Missouri Synod

Question. What is the main theological issue in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod? Answer. The authority of the Bible.” So readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY were informed in an interview with Missouri Synod president Dr. J. A. O. Preus published in the October 25, 1974, issue.

The answer is a smokescreen. The authority of the Bible is not at issue in the Missouri Synod. I personally have been very much at the center of the controversy and have been removed from office presumably because of my position on doctrine. I fully accept the authority of the Bible. I am totally committed to the Bible as the inspired and infallible Word of God. As a pastor of the church I have no other message than what the Bible teaches.

Smokescreens serve a purpose. Focus the concern of people on the issue of the Bible’s authority and you divert their attention from what is really going on. Say the answer often enough and people believe it. The result is that many people inside and outside the Missouri Synod are convinced that the dispute is between “Bible believers” and “Bible doubters.” They have been hoodwinked by the smokescreen.

The issue of biblical authority has been manufactured and manipulated in the interest of power politics. Everybody knows that the Missouri Synod man in the pew wants to uphold the truth of the Bible and the Bible’s authority in the church’s life. His valid concern has been manipulated through the manufacture of the issue of biblical authority to enable a particular party within the Synod to gain control of the Synod’s institutions in order to remold the Synod’s life according to their own ideological and theological standards.

Look at what has happened. First, unspecified rumors of false doctrine in high places were circulated to frighten enough of the rank and file to replace key Synod officials with party candidates, including a new president of the Synod. Then after a prejudiced investigation of the Synod’s major seminary the new president himself issued a report accusing unnamed professors of teaching false doctrine, specified as undermining the authority of the Bible, over the objections of the professors that their position had been misrepresented and distorted. Then by majority vote of a Synod convention (New Orleans in 1973), contrary to the Synod’s own procedures for due process, the teaching of nearly all professors at Concordia Seminary was condemned as “false doctrine not to be tolerated in the church of God” in the face of protests from official representatives of the seminary that no one held or taught the teachings for which they were being condemned. As president of the seminary I was ousted from office for “holding and defending, allowing and fostering false doctrine” without even being told what the false doctrine is. Those who protested what was happening in the church were immediately called “insurgents” and “rebels against the Word of God.” Those who disagreed with the actions of the Synod administration were labeled “Bible doubters.”

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Did anyone notice what happened in the meantime? Every key power center in the institution fell under the control of the party making the accusation that the authority of the Bible was being subverted. “They Are Taking Your Bible Away” has proved to be an effective political slogan.

You have to look behind the smokescreen to discover the real issues in the Missouri Synod controversy. There are genuine issues, and they increase in number with each passing month. In fact, the very soul of the Synod is at stake.

In my estimation the chief issue is confessional. It is about what it means to be a Lutheran church. The classic Lutheran answer to the question is given in the Lutheran confessional writings. Those writings set forth the platform on which Lutherans stand together in one church. The platform consists of the Scriptures as the only rule and norm for all teaching and practice and the creeds and confessions contained in the Book of Concord of 1580 as a correct statement and exposition of what the Scriptures teach. Lutheran congregations and pastors and teachers make a voluntary commitment to that platform and agree to be bound by it in their life together in the church.

But the 1973 convention of the Missouri Synod changed the platform. By majority vote it adopted a new doctrinal statement issued by the president of the Synod and declared it binding on all the members of the Synod. Since the convention the doctrinal statement has served as a confessional writing through its use as a criterion of eligibility for pastors and teachers. Although doctrinal statements can be useful instruments in the church’s life, imposing them on the Synod strikes at the heart of what it means to be a Lutheran church. Because of our voluntary commitment to Scriptures and confessions, we Lutherans know what we believe. Imposing binding statements has exactly the opposite effect of assuring conformity to the truth of Scripture. You can’t be sure what is going to be imposed on you next.

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Another major issue is over the mission of the church. That issue has gone almost unnoticed because of the smokescreen of biblical authority. Yet a major struggle has been going on for more than three years that has resulted in the resignation of almost the entire staff of the Synod’s Board for Missions in protest against the board’s reversal of Synod mission policy. Last summer sister churches of the Synod in Asia publicly rebuked the Board for Missions and called on board members to return to the Synod’s policies or resign. At stake is the very nature of the church’s mission. Is mission the responsibility of the people who are reaching out on the local scene, or is it to be determined paternalistically by remote control from the mission office back home? Is mission an indivisible unity of witness by word and deed, or do we concentrate on evangelism at the expense of welfare and social ministry? Is our mission to be conducted in cooperation with other Christians in a local area wherever possible without compromising the truth, or shall we revert to an isolationist, go-it-alone policy? Those are crucial theological issues.

A long-smoldering issue has burst into flame as a result of the synodical administration’s handling of the Concordia Seminary controversy. That issue is the relation between the authority of the Synod and the autonomy of the local congregation. The faculty of Concordia Seminary could not in conscience endure the efforts to silence their teaching of the Word of God, and so they were fired. The students could not in conscience tolerate the gross injustice perpetrated against their professors. The result was Concordia Seminary in Exile. And the further result was a graduating class of more than 100 students looking for service in congregations of the Synod without the benefit of the synodical stamp of approval for service. Congregations took them gladly over the shrill protests from one institution of the Synod after another that their ordination was “null and void.”

Out of the turmoil has come another look at the question whether the local congregation is in fact autonomous, as the constitution of the Synod says it is, and whether the Synod is only advisory as far as the congregation is concerned, as the constitution of the Synod says it is. Does a person called by a congregation have a valid call from God and is he therefore eligible for ordination, or is the call of the congregation invalid unless there has been prior approval of the candidate by an agency of the Synod?

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A theological issue not usually recognized as such is over what it means to be “church” in our relations with one another. The Missouri Synod is experiencing a tragic breakdown of fraternal relations. Our members are badly polarized. If you really want to be the “church” and not just another business organization or political institution, how do you deal with difficulties in your relationships, especially when they concern theological issues? Some in the Synod are acting on the assumption that you enact legislation by majority vote and then require people to conform to the legislation or get out. That is how the synodical administration dealt with “the seminary problem.” Tragically, many congregations have learned from the example of their national officers and are now hounding their pastors and teachers out of office.

Have issues of truth ever been satisfactorily decided that way? If we are brothers and sisters in Christ, are we not obligated to seek to resolve our differences by talking about them in a spirit of love on the basis of the Scriptures, trusting in the Holy Spirit to lead us to a solution? Should not our goal be, not to oust our brother, but to gain him?

Isn’t the Bible an issue at all in the Missouri Synod controversy? Not the authority of the Bible! Interpreting the Bible is an issue. There is disagreement over what is legitimate and what is illegitimate in biblical interpretation. The role of tradition in biblical interpretation is an issue. Strange to tell, a church body that calls itself after the name of Martin Luther is telling its members that the results of their Bible study must conform to the tradition of Bible interpretation sanctioned by the Synod in its past century and a quarter.

Everyone in the Synod accepts the authority of the Bible. At best there is an issue over whether the authority of the Bible can be separated from its gospel content. By its profession the Missouri Synod is a Lutheran church. By that profession it acknowledges that it shares the understanding of biblical authority presented in the Lutheran confessional writings. Those writings clearly affirm the Bible to be the Word of God. They consciously understand the term in accord with what the Bible itself means by “Word of God.” As the Lutheran confessional writings clearly affirm, the Word of God is the message of God’s judgment and of his promise. Everything in the Bible is either a word of law that condemns or a word of promise that saves. In its proper sense the Word of God is good news about God in action to save. Preeminently the Word of God is Jesus Christ himself.

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Without Christ the Bible’s authority is reduced to a judging and condemning law. But as Martin Luther wrote, the Bible is the cradle of Christ. Through it we are brought to him. He gives it its authority. Because of him we know it is the Word of God written by human authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of giving the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. At issue in the present controversy is whether the Missouri Synod is going to stay true to that Lutheran insight.

These are not the only issues in the Missouri Synod controversy. There are issues of morality and justice. There are organizational issues. Most recently, money has become an issue as more and more members find it difficult to support the program of the present administration. More issues are likely to surface in the future.

To help the Missouri Synod confront the issues a confessing movement has emerged from among the Synod’s members. Evangelical Lutherans in Mission (ELIM) is its organizational expression. The name of the organization expresses its purpose. It seeks to witness to the Gospel within a church body that is being strangled by appeals to the law. It is working to restore the Synod to the Lutheran confessional platform of its constitution. It aims to help the people of the Synod carry out the mission of the church as it is given to us in the Bible. In the process it offers support and protection to members of the Synod whose ministries are jeopardized or terminated because of their stand in the confessing movement.

In attempting to accomplish its purposes ELIM has engaged in a program of education and interpretation to deal with the issues troubling the Missouri Synod. Its publication, Missouri in Perspective, has reached a circulation of over 100,000. ELIM has served as the chief means of support for Concordia Seminary in Exile and is working to assure the placement of its graduates. Out of the turmoil over the church’s mission ELIM has established “Partners in Mission” to provide the people of the Synod with alternative and additional instruments of mission.

ELIM has clearly indicated that it does not intend to be a counter political party in the Synod to seek to gain institutional control. Politics is not the answer to solving the serious problems facing the Synod. The only way through the difficulty is once again to be the church. Instead of trying to impose our will on one another, we have to accept each other and together seek a common understanding of God’s truth and of his mission for us in the world.

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One of the blackest billows in the smokescreen is the accusation that Missouri Synod “moderates” do not believe in miracles. The canard has no basis in fact. Miracles not only happened as described in the Scriptures: they happen! I have seen a few in my own lifetime, not the least of which has been the renewing and life-giving power of God in the present controversy. He has raised up faithful witnesses to the Gospel who are prepared to make their witness no matter what the cost. God himself is at work in the controversy we are experiencing. He is doing his deeds of judgment and mercy. He is pulling down in order to build up. We can trust him to purify us to serve his purposes. Through his Son he brought resurrection out of crucifixion. We can count on him to make all things new. No smokescreen will be able to hide his work.

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