The crucial Denver convention of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has come and gone, leaving mystified observers shaking their heads in bewilderment here and abroad. Hardly had the convention begun when Dr. J. A. O. Preus, the conservative president of the synod’s Springfield seminary, replaced (almost on the first ballot) the mediating-to-liberal incumbent synodical president Oliver Harms. A few days later, the same convention voted its approval of pulpit-and-altar fellowship with the American Lutheran Church—a move consistently opposed by Preus and other synod conservatives because of the ALC’s latitudinarianism on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, its fellowship with the liberal Lutheran Church in America, and its membership in the unionistic Lutheran World Federation and World Council of Churches.
Having witnessed at close range the kaleidoscopic shifts in the French political climate, I was perhaps better prepared for these apparently inexplicable results than would otherwise have been the case. In France one learns that inconsistency in surface behavior can often be explained consistently if one strikes deeper.
The election of Dr. Preus cannot be attributed—as sour-grapes liberal inside and outside the synod are claiming—to “underground,” “anti-harmonistic,” “reactionary” forces that endeavored to gain control of the synod for their “nefarious right-wing purposes.” Certainly efforts were made to convince delegates to vote a particular way. But this activity was carried on by both sides, as it inevitably is in any democracy. The election itself was entirely aboveboard, and the delegates were free to make their own decisions, which they did.
The post-convention complaints of the losing side merely illustrate an immature liberal syndrome: the attribution of conservative success to “hidden right-wing forces” (cf. Stringfellow and Towne’s The Bishop Pike Affair, which argued in all seriousness that attempts in the Episcopal Church to discipline the bishop for his doctrinal deviations were the product of reactionary elements endeavoring to undermine our democratic society!). Both the far left and the far right continually find bogeymen under their beds (whether “underground anti-democratic forces” or “the international Communist conspiracy”). Preus was elected simply because the Missouri Synod had had enough of leadership that was characterized by an enormous credibility gap and that, step by step, was leading Missouri to compromise its historic doctrinal heritage.
But why, then, the positive vote on the ALC fellowship issue? Unlike the presidential vote (which the incumbent administration could not very well influence before the convention without betraying its fear that its time was running out), the ALC proposal had been advocated in all official church publications for months. And at the convention itself, the pressure actually increased in intensity: delegates found it extremely difficult to resist the repetitious refrain that to oppose the fellowship resolution would be to oppose Christ’s own prayer for unity in the church. After Preus’s election, some liberals actually went so far as to tell undecided conservatives: “Now that God has given us a firmly conservative leadership again, we have nothing to fear in entering into fellowship with a less conservative body”!
Considering the quantity, intensity, and emotional overtones of the pro-ALC propaganda, it is quite remarkable that the delegates passed the fellowship motion only by a narrow margin. That says something about the theological acumen of Missouri’s grass roots; in most large denominations such a vote would have been 98 per cent for fellowship, and the other 2 per cent would have been burned in effigy on the one inviolable heresy charge in the twentieth-century church: anti-ecumenicity.
As a whole, Denver was indeed a conservative, not a liberal, victory. Had the seemingly paradoxical vote been reversed—against ALC fellowship but for the continuation of the Harms regime—the cause of confessional Lutheranism would have been lost in the Missouri Synod. For the liberal propaganda emanating from St. Louis would have continued unabated, and, in the absence of a comparable official avenue for presentation of the other side, the ALC fellowship proposal would have inevitably passed at a future convention anyway. Moreover, the steady shift in the direction of a liberal ministerium would have persisted, for nothing would have been done to correct the present latitudinarian atmosphere at such synodical schools as Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and Concordia Teachers College, River Forest.
As things stand now, there is every hope of a new day in the Missouri Synod. Because of the Germanically authoritarian aura of prestige surrounding the synod’s presidential office, Preus is in an ideal position to reverse the trends of the last two decades. But this will come about only if two measures are rigorously carried out—uninhibited by fear or the confusion of Law and Gospel that is continually pressed on Missouri’s conservatives in the name of brotherly sentimentality.
First, the President must courageously rid the synod, and particularly its teaching offices, of those persons who by their public teachings have advocated views of Scripture disharmonious with the Church’s express belief that the Bible is God’s inerrant Word (“everything should be subordinated” to Scripture—Formula of Concord, S. D., Summary, para. 9). Martin Scharlemann of the Concordia, St. Louis, faculty has recently stated that in a meeting with liberally oriented district presidents, Preus “specifically promised that no heads will roll.” Certainly no vendetta must occur, but unless the heads of a number of liberals are rolled out of Missouri into churches where their owners can maintain their un-Lutheran views with integrity, Missouri will continue to deteriorate. Scriptural defection is a cancer that has destroyed too many denominations for anyone to think naively that it can be treated by a remedy less acute than surgery.
Secondly (and this may irritate the extreme right as much as measure number one infuriates the liberals), the educational system of the synod must be revamped from bottom to top. No longer can the Church be satisfied with lock-step, Germanic indoctrination, whether orthodox or heterodox, or with a slavish adherence to bureaucracy. Missouri’s people, from parochial school to seminary, need to learn to think—to discover the “reason for the faith that is within them,” so that in contact with the complex ideologies and heresies of our day they will display an active, informed, relevant, socially sensitive, truly biblical faith. Only by such thoroughgoing reeducation will Missouri come into the kind of ecumenical alignments it really needs—with other Bible-believing churches who share Luther’s evangelical conviction that “there’s none other God” than Christ Jesus and that “he holds the field for ever.”
JOHN WARWICK MONTGOMERY
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