After a week of preliminary committee meetings, nearly 900 voting and 700 advisory delegates participated in the forty-sixth regular convention of the Lutheran Church—Missouri SynodOnly about 150,000 of the church’s 2,750,000 members live in Missouri. A search for a new name will soon be under way. at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. In his opening address Dr. Oliver R. Harms proposed a “foundation on which we can stand, a platform from which we can move.” Included were maintaining “trust in God’s infallible Word,” striving “to preserve the unity of faith and the bonds of peace with every brother in our synodical fellowship,” and seeking “to establish and to manifest the unity we have in Christ Jesus with every other brother of God’s household.”
Harms noted that during his three-year first term as president the synod had added 180,000 members, and that 3,000 new pastors, teachers, and other workers had joined the church’s full-time force. He noted also that the church had given over 70 million dollars for world mission work in that period.
Traditionally a bulwark of confessional Lutheranism, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has for several years experienced considerable unrest over relations with other churches, the doctrine of Scripture, and problems of hermeneutics. The opinion of veteran observers that the Detroit convention would mark a turning point in this traditionally conservative church body was only in part fulfilled. Theologically the church remained in its historic position, but in relation to other churches it took an extremely progressive and outgoing position. As Harms put it, “The walls have crumbled.”
The synod showed an atttude of willingness to carry on conversations and dialogues with all groups and took a much more relaxed attitude toward the conduct of its foreign missionaries. The synod agreed to support mission churches that may be cooperating with neighboring churches in foreign lands even though the synod at home does not cooperate with the parent churches of such groups. Thus greater autonomy and self-determination was given to the mission churches.
The willingness to talk was also shown by the church body’s vote, without dissent, to carry on dialogues with Roman Catholics (three years ago the convention debated strongly a dialogue with Presbyterians and adopted the suggestion rather narrowly). In the same spirit the synod voted overwhelmingly to join the proposed Lutheran Council in the U. S. A. This will bring the synod into formal working relationship with the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America, contrary to the century-long history of the Missouri Synod. While the move does not imply pulpit or altar fellowship, nor necessarily imply a step toward Lutheran union, it means that serious theological discussions will get under way with other members of the Lutheran Council. The synod approved, in addition, a proposal to prepare a joint hymnal with the two other big Lutheran bodies.
These decisions probably mark the final burial of relations with the Wisconsin and Evangelical Lutheran Synods, with whom Missouri had been aligned for more than ninety years in the Synodical Conference. The conference continues to exist on paper, now consisting only of Missouri and the tiny Synod of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (Slovak). The Missouri Synod has proposed that the Slovak churches join it.
A proposal to study the possibility of joining the Lutheran World Federation was adopted, as was a plan to contribute money to an LWF subsidiary ecumenical agency in which Lutherans and Roman Catholics are cooperating.
The Missouri Synod also showed considerable interest in social action, and even passed resolutions regarding fair employment and housing.
The synod demonstrated its usual historic conservatism in the area of theology. In answer to specific memorials, it declared belief in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, in Isaiah as author of the Book of Isaiah, in the historicity of the Jonah account, and in the fact that Old Testament prophecies find fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In answer to an overture made as a result of an article in the youth magazine Arena, the synod resoundingly and without debate reaffirmed that Christ is the only way of salvation. Both in its theological resolutions and in the type of men it chose for office, the synod showed little patience with the left-wing element that has been becoming more vociferous.
Harms, who has a reputation for being quite conservative, was re-elected decisively on the second ballot. Dr. Roland P. Wie-deraenders, against whom left-wing effort was reportedly under way, was re-elected first vice-president. It was generally felt that the new presidium will be even more conservative than the old.
The synod resoundingly rejected a proposed inter-synodical revised translation of Luther’s Small Catechism, which was attacked as theologically inadequate and untrue to the original text of Luther by the Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations. Despite efforts of both the Synodical Board for Parish Education and a floor committee, the catechism went down to defeat. The synod earlier reaffirmed its quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions (because they are a proper exposition of the Word of God).
A rather surprising turn came when it was proposed, mainly by lay delegates, that the Board for Parish Education and the Board for Higher Education accept federal aid. After a strenuous floor fight, the synod by a very narrow vote agreed to accept federal aid for its parochial school children at the elementary level, but continued to reject such aid on higher levels. The question of federal loans for college dormitories apparently was not involved.
One of the most exciting and perhaps most fruitless episodes concerned a report of the Synodical Board for Young People’s Work. Delegates were exercised over the invitation extended to Pete Seeger, a folk singer of alleged Communistic tendencies, to entertain young people at the convention of the International Walther League at Squaw Valley, California. The bid precipitated many overtures and created a serious floor fight. While the synod did not require the board to eliminate Seeger from the program, it did show its ire by expressing itself as “not giving blanket endorsement” to all activities of the board and by electing a new slate of board officers.
Nearing A Moment Of Truth
Oklahoma history records that while 170,000 people awaited the sound of the gun signaling the famous “Run” into the Cherokee Strip for staking new homesite claims, a Disciples of Christ minister, J. M. Monroe, held a revival among the crowds and baptized some 400 converts. But last month fast-growing Tulsa provided a suitable setting for the fast-growing North American Christian Convention, whose vitality and evangelistic fervor are reminiscent of the Monroe revival.
Convention President Russell L. Martin, pastor of First Christian Church of Miami, Oklahoma, listed some of the recent gains and offered his explanation for them: “How account for the current phenomenal momentum of the Restoration Movement? How account for the unprecedented gains of these ‛Independent Cooperators’ in Bible college students, in missionaries (more than 800 at home and abroad tonight), in new churches being planted (twenty-three in St. Louis in nine years—eight in Oklahoma City—ten in Tulsa—eight in Memphis—eleven in Wichita in recent years, and on and on to Michigan, Florida, California, Illinois, Colorado, Ohio, and states north, south, east, and west)? While some folks are despondent over dry baptistries and a shortage of preachers, the undenominational Christian Churches are rejoicing over wet baptistries and training an all-time record number of nearly 5,000 specialized Christian workers at the Bible colleges! What is behind it all? A grass-roots longing to be free in Christ! A longing to be Christians only!”
By way of contrast, Martin scored those who “would have all sell their birthright of freedom in Christ for a mess of compromise and a glass of liberalism; a smorgasbord of doctrines, rules, and regulations of which Jesus never heard—claiming to bring folks together in a so-called union, bound by some general belief in God.… Whatever is distorted by the would-be managers of merger, one thing is crystal clear—it is not a grass-roots surge! The disciples of restructure and denominational union are not the evangelistic pastors in towns, cities, and hamlets—not the elders and deacons who came to Christ believing hell is hell and heaven is heaven and that the word of God is yea and amen for all people of all ages—not the thousands of Sunday school teachers and leaders who walked down the aisles in great revival crusades, overjoyed to find the plea: ‘Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.’ The pushers for denominational status and an overlording form of church government are at the top levels of organizations who long since have gone independent of the New Testament Church and the Restoration Movement. The only common ground suggested is bureaucratic and super-organizational, rather than theological. No efforts have yet been announced for all to sit down around the Word of God and solve all doctrinal differences, according to one divine blueprint!”
Martin’s words highlighted the fact that one of America’s largest church groupings has probably passed the point of no return on a road leading to ecclesiastical realignment and massive rupture. Church mergers nearly always leave continuing splinter groups in their wake. But in this case the “splinter” promises to be larger than the merging body. Ironically in our ecumenical era, the growing division is attributable in large measure to divergent views of ecumenism.
The Christian Churches or Disciples of Christ movement, founded on the nineteenth-century American frontier by Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, was an early ecumenical effort to unite the various denominations through “a Restoration of the New Testament order” in which denominational loyalties would melt away in a pristine congregationalism. The NACC has remained loyal to this ecumenical ideal, while the Disciples who follow the lead of the International Convention of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) have generally despaired of any effectual realization of the early dream and have thrown in their lot with the current ecumenical movement. The more theologically liberal ICCC (which represents perhaps one million members) is now in process of “restructuring the brotherhood” away from its congregational autonomy to clear the way for the possibility of merger with the United Church of Christ or with the other five denominations participating in the Blake merger proposal. Thus not only are these churches pulling further away than ever from the Churches of Christ (some 2,200,000 members), who divided early in the century partly over Disciple introduction of instrumental music in the church services; they are also moving away from the churches (representing nearly 1,300,000 members) that participate in the NACC. This convention was organized in 1927 to give voice to conservatives uneasy about modernistic inroads into the Disciple leadership. The strict autonomous polity of NACC churches presents a wholesale departure from the ICCC at this stage, but the lines are continually being more clearly drawn as consummation of restructure approaches. This will be the moment of truth for comparative strength of the ICCC and NACC philosophies, with some informed observers predicting that the ICCC will be able to carry with it into its restructure form a maximum of 800,000 members. Thus the NACC stands to gain even greater strength through defections from the older body.
Echoes of the controversy were heard in the four-day meeting held in Tulsa’s handsome new Assembly Center. Primarily a preaching and Christian education convention, the NACC divides into many special-interest sections, with particular attention given to programs suitable for all age groups. (So in a sense this is a family convention.) One “preachers’ session” was sparked by a clash of opinions evoked by the presence of an ICCC leader, Dr. Ronald E. Osborn, dean of the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. Osborn advocated the changing of church structure in order to serve a changing world: “The questions then to ask in church organization are not, Is this how our fathers did it? or even, Is this how the apostles did it? But rather, Is this the best way that we can find in our present historic circumstances to carry out the mission and to make known the gospel? And, Is this in harmony with the gospel?” He said that restructure involves “the clear conviction that our regional and national, as well as our congregational, structure should be and rightly is a manifestation of the church.”
In a responding address, Dr. Wilford F. Lown, president of Manhattan (Kansas) Bible College, spoke of a common fear of those opposed to restructure: “The continuing cry that the Bible was merely the product of the Church, and therefore that it cannot be viewed as normative in matters pertaining to the life of the Church, is making inroads into the confidence Christian people have in Scripture. If this policy is continued, and it is likely to be, Christian people will be left at the mercy of the ecclesiastics in matters of Christian faith and practice.”
Evident in any NACC gathering is the burning conviction that Congregationalism is the polity set forth in the New Testament. At present a study of the NACC is being carried on by a special committee. While recognition is given to the fact that a certain amount of authority is required to stage a convention, great care is being taken, as manifest in a strong statute of limitations, to safeguard the voluntary character of the NACC. The convention is composed of individual Christians rather than churches or congregations and is official spokesman for no group.
Historians described the Disciples as among the hardest hit by modernism of any American church body. After the early battles, conservative Disciples tended to retreat into an isolation buttressed by their congregational polity and to present a defensive posture of reaction. But now their leaders point gratefully to a new positive stance born of a confidence possessed by a large and vigorous movement—some 10,000 attended the Tulsa convention. They also cite their advancing educational standards and confess a thirst among their brotherhood for greater fellowship with other evangelicals. And they hope for a new dialogue to ride the crest of the current ecumenical wave with an effectual and far-reaching plea for that early brand of ecumenism preached by their fathers.
Delicacies For The Delegates
Meeting outside Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the first time in thirty-seven years, the synodical assembly of the Christian Reformed Church was remarkably free of tensions that sometimes mark the gathering of this theologically conservative and doctrinally sensitive church. It seemed almost as if the peace and quiet of the rich farmland community of Sioux Center, Iowa (pop. 2,500), where divorce is almost unknown and the crime rate lowest in the Midwest, wrought its tranquil grace on the church’s seventieth annual session. The area was once the homeland of the Sioux Indians but is now inhabited by those of Dutch descent.
On one of the fairest of June evenings, Mayor Maurice A. TePasche of Sioux Center summoned the delegates for a steak barbeque, and none seemed concerned that a civil authority had assembled an ecclesiastical gathering. TePasche, a member of the Reformed Church in America, had Dr. Ralph Danhof, stated clerk of the Christian Reformed Church, as his house guest. As any gracious stated clerk would, Danhof attended Sunday evening services in the local Reformed Church with his host. (The Christian Reformed Church separated from the Reformed Church in America 108 years ago, and the two denominations have not always regarded each other as friendly rivals.)
The delegates were also entertained at a dinner by the Chamber of Commerce of nearby Orange City. The “Dutch Dozen,” dressed in wooden shoes and native costumes, entertained the ecclesiastical body with nostalgic Dutch songs and a “cloppen dance.” Many left with the feeling that with the loss of the folk dance something of value had vanished from their rich tradition.
During the nine-day session, strong opposition was expressed to the United States Senate Bill 1211, which would make National Election Day fall on the first Sunday in November. The 128 assembly delegates urged the church’s U. S. members “to express sincere disapproval to their respective government representatives and urge the defeat of the … bill.” The bill, it was urged, would impose upon millions of Christian Americans a “serious conflict in fulfilling their civic and religious duties.”
Few communities could have afforded such a decision in a more congenial and sympathetic environment. Sunday in Sioux Center, home of the fast-growing Dordt College, is a day of rest, with every store, service station, and restaurant closed. If you hunger on Sunday, the friendly local people will feed you free in their own homes—if they become aware of your plight.
An overture from Classis Central California requested that the synod reconsider its earlier decision to cooperate with a corps of evangelical scholars to produce a new Bible translation. The classis contended that there is no need for a new translation. The synod decided to reconsider the matter after the convening of the evangelically sponsored Bible Translation Conference.
In another action the synod approved the spending of 5½ million dollars for the expansion of Calvin College on its new Knollcrest campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Unlike Dordt College and Chicago’s Trinity College, which are sponsored by free societies within the Christian Reformed community, Calvin College is denominationally owned, financed, and controlled.
With 25 per cent of its churches located in Canada, the Christian Reformed Church is an international church. Such churches are, as the Rev. Tenis C. Van Kooten of Holland, Michigan, said, “rare animals.” To meet the peculiar problems confronting a church that crosses an international border, the synod, under its president, the Rev. William Haverkamp of Kalamazoo, Michigan, appointed a committee to study ways to achieve a practical unity within a church that is characterized by deep religious and theological unity.
After fourteen years of study and discussion, the church adopted a revision of its Church Order. The revision eliminates the theological professorial chair as an ecclesiastical office along with deacon, elder, and minister. In its opening article the new Church Order declares that the Christian Reformed Church is governed by “the Word of God and the Reformed Creeds.” Further specification of which Reformed creeds and how many was deliberately withheld, according to Professor Martin Monsma of Calvin Seminary, who headed the study, so that none would be excluded. Just how the government of the church can be subject to a large number of Reformed creeds while the theology of the church is subject only to the three to which the church officially subscribes was not made plain.
The synod honored the request of a small group of churches in Florida to form a Florida classis. The total number of families in these churches is less than that in some of the denomination’s single congregations. Since representation on the denominational level is a classical matter, some observers predicted that this action would result in a multiplication of classes through the division of existing ones, and that this in turn would pave the way for the formation of particular synods within the denominational organization. Until now requests for particular synods have been rejected.
The Convention Circuit
Do church conventions tend to be dull? Perhaps. But even the most routine assemblies have some light moments. In Belfast, for example, the new moderator of the General Assembly of the Irish Presbyterian Church showed up with a black eye. “Unique even for an Irishman elevated to this office,” commented a local observer. “He was in a car accident a week before and there was some doubt as to whether he might be fit in time.”
In San Francisco, an Oriental flavor was given the 135th annual General Assembly of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Sessions were held in the First Chinese Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The moderator’s Sunday sermon was translated into Chinese.
Chief item of business for the 90,000-member predominantly Southern church was a plan to reunite with the 20,000-member Second (Negro) Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The Negro separation dates back to 1869. The reunion proposal will be put to a vote in local presbyteries.
In London, Ontario, theological conservatives scored a decisive victory when delegates to the seventy-seventh annual assembly of the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec voted to sever a cooperative curriculum program with the United Church of Canada. The vote was interpreted as a repudiation of the highly controversial, theologically liberal Sunday school curriculum developed recently by the United Church of Canada. The convention will now promote Sunday school materials of the American and Southern Baptist Conventions.
In suburban Toronto, delegates to the ninety-first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada witnessed the groundbreaking for a new headquarters building.
In Flat Rock, North Carolina, the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church asked trustees of the denomination’s Erskine College to reconsider their decision not to cooperate with the Civil Rights Act. The synod action, by a vote of 102 to 80, reversed the position taken by last year’s synod, which held it “neither wise nor expedient” to endorse integration in churches or church institutions.
A documentary film on the life of the late Dr. Paul Carlson, medical missionary killed by rebels in the Congo last fall, was premiered at the annual meetings of the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Evangelical Free Church. The two denominations cooperate in Congo mission work.
Other developments: In suburban Minneapolis, the headquarters-seminary building of the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations was dedicated at the closing session of the group’s third annual conference.… In Des Moines, Iowa, delegates to the thirty-fourth annual conference of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches expressed “biblical indignation” over the appearance of Russian Baptists on the program of the Baptist World Congress.… In Memphis, the American Baptist Association reaffirmed its segregationist stand and began an advertising campaign to eliminate confusion between it and the American Baptist Convention. The ABA is a fellowship of congregations, mostly in the South, claiming a total membership of 655,200.
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