The Missouri Synod’s Slide into Heterodoxy, 1932-1947 – Part Two
delivered to the
Forty-Eighth Annual Convention of the Concordia Lutheran Conference
The Rev. David T. Mensing, Pastor
Peace Ev. Lutheran Church, Oak Forest, Illinois
The Missouri Synod’s Slide into Heterodoxy, 1932-1947
Suddenly and completely “out of the blue” —particularly for those who were either indifferent to or oblivious of the creeping heterodoxy that was eating like a cancer from within the body— organized dissatisfaction with the official orthodox position of the Missouri Synod was widely publicized, dissatisfaction particularly with its Scriptural requisites for Godpleasing union with other Lutherans and its refusal to enter into fellowship with the A. L. C. Forty-four pastors and professors, many of them renowned theologians in the synod, representing themselves as voices of reason and legitimate concern, met in Chicago, Illinois, on September 6-7, 1945, to mount an offensive against what they termed “some of the most vexing problems confronting our Synod.” To illustrate these alleged “problems” they preferred vaguely worded general accusations against unnamed members (and presumably also officers) of the synod without supporting evidence and without proof, and they drafted and signed A Statement which they represented as their sincere effort to combat those “problems”.
A copy of this Statement was sent by Dr. E. J. Friedrich, one of the leaders of this renegade group, to Synodical President John W. Behnken on September 19, who, the very same day, in a long distance phone call, asked Dr. Friedrich to postpone the publication of the Statement until the praesidium [the President and the four Vice Presidents of Synod] had an opportunity to discuss its contents with the signers. This request was denied. On October 2, Dr. Behnken and the rest of the praesidium urgently telegraphed their protest against the publication of the Statement, but a representative committee of the signers declined to honor the protest. Thereupon the document with its cover letter was distributed throughout the Missouri Synod, putting into print and thrusting into the public eye the pernicious views of those who today would no doubt still be regarded by “modern” Lutherans as “genuinely concerned moderates” and “pleading voices of reason” in the interest of Christian unity. This precipitous circularization of A Statement threw down a red-hot gauntlet at the feet of President Behnken, which, as it soon became evident, he was both unable and unwilling to pick up and deal with in accordance with Scripture as the chief executive officer of the Missouri Synod, charged with guarding the confessional position of that church body against error and public offense. Moreover, the subsequent lengthy defense of A Statement contained in a booklet entitled “Speaking the Truth in Love” grossly perverted that Bible text (Ephesians 4:15) and used it for the propagation of error. It is therefore in direct testimony against that perversion that we have taken Ephesians 4:15 as the motto of this present convention of our beloved Conference and now uncover in retrospect the lies, slander, and false doctrine that were permitted to stand, “that the generation to come might know” (Psalm 78:6) the truth about A Statement and the official cover-up which effectively sealed the doom of the Missouri Synod as a heterodox church body.
What About the Charges? —In the cover letter that accompanied it, the signers of A Statement published general accusations against unnamed members of Synod, without the evidence and proof required by Holy Scripture, charges which, understood in the context of A Statement and the agenda of its signers, targeted those pastors and synodical officers who remained steadfast and unmoveable (I Corinthians 15:58) on the doctrinal position of the Missouri Synod (Brief Statement of 1932) and resisted any and all efforts to compromise that doctrinal position for an “easy union” with the American Lutheran Church. The “good words and fair speeches” (Romans 16:18) in which the charges were cloaked were perniciously deceptive. They had been cunningly crafted in their language so as to beg the question and entice the reader to accept them as legitimate outrage at false doctrine and practice, when, in actuality, they couched condemnation of true orthodoxy in fair-sounding terminology. Would not we ourselves, not knowing of the wicked machinations of these 20th Century “men of Belial” (I Kings 21:10-13), have been outraged to learn that there were those in our church body who showed:
* “a pernicious spirit, utterly at variance with the fundamental concepts of the Gospel”
* “a wrong approach to the Holy Scriptures”
* “a misconception of the essence of the Gospel”
* “barren, negative attitudes and unevangelical techniques”
* “unsympathetic, legalistic practices”
* “self-complacent and separatistic narrowness”
* “utter disregard for the law of Christian love”
* “ecclesiastical persecutions”
Yet, there was no evidence, no proper witness, no proof; so that even if the allegations had been true, they would have constituted false witness according to the Eighth Commandment (see Luther, Large Catechism, §109-112), slander (Psalm 50:19ff.), and blatant defamation (Proverbs 11:9). What these amounted to were the counter-accusation of and ad hominem attack upon the defenders of the truth that Ahab threw in the face of God’s servant, Elijah: “Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” (I Kings 18:17).
What About the Content —While not everything in A Statement is contrary to Scripture, several sections are questionable because of the inferences that can be drawn from them on the basis of the signers’ quite public and undisguised agenda:
Section One: “We affirm our loyalty to the great evangelical heritage of historic Lutheranism.”
The term “Lutheran heritage” is deliberately vague here. The signers obviously do not affirm loyalty to the Sola Scriptura heritage, or they would affirm loyalty to the inerrant, verbally-inspired Scriptures. Their “Lutheran heritage” can better be characterized as a “Melanchthonian” heritage.
Section Two: “We deplore a tendency in our Synod to substitute human judgments, synodical resolutions, or other sources of authority for the supreme authority of Scripture.”
This sounds nice at first hearing, but when we consider that the “human judgments, synodical resolutions, or other sources of authority” objected to by the signers are those resolutions whereby an easy union with the A. L. C. had been blocked (including, of course, the Brief Statement of 1932), the color of the horse suddenly looks different!
Section Three: “We deplore all man-made barriers and all ecclesiastical traditions which would hinder the free course of the Gospel in the world.”
We would deplore the same —if that were what this section actually deplores. In point of fact, the signers deplore here proper Scriptural “practice” in the Synod including prohibitions against unionistic services, joint prayer with the heterodox, and participation with false church bodies in evangelism programs. They found the regulations of Synod against such things restrictive of the Gospel.
Section Four: “We deplore a loveless attitude which is manifesting itself within Synod … in suspicions of brethren, in the impugning of motives, and in the condemnation of all who have expressed differing opinions….”
This, too, is fair-sounding until we understand that the signers equated “lovelessness” with admonition and doctrinal discipline in the Synod, the denunciation of sinful religious unionism, and the condemnation of those who “cause divisions and offenses” by espousing false doctrine and/or permitting false doctrine to stand alongside the truth without discrimination.
Section Six: “We believe that there should be a re-emphasis of the privileges and responsibilities of the local congregation also in the matter of determining questions of fellowship.”
Dr. Friedrich’s official denial notwithstanding, this wording clearly opens the door to selective fellowship apart from joint recognition of brethren on the part of the synodical organization. In proper joint recognition of fellowship on the part of a church body, there is no hierarchical rule established for the synod or conference over the congregation, but only a safeguard against subjectively selective fellowship which ultimately results in religious unionism. Such a safeguard should be valued, not deplored.
Besides the above, four sections are definitely objectionable, namely, sections five, eight, nine and eleven. Let us look at each briefly:
Section Five: “We affirm our conviction that sound exegetical procedure is the basis for sound Lutheran theology. We therefore deplore the fact that Romans 16:17-18 has been applied to all Christians who differ from us in certain points of doctrine. It is our conviction based on sound exegetical and hermeneutical principles, that this text does not apply to the present situation in the Lutheran Church of America.”
1) NOT exegetical procedure (the method of expounding Scripture) but CLEAR SCRIPTURE ITSELF (the prooftexts or sedes which stand on their own without interpretation) is the only basis for sound Lutheran theology! 2) Romans 16:17-18 does not allow for the variances and exceptions forced upon it by modern exegetes. It is a sedes doctrinae or prooftext which forbids religious unionism, that is, church work and worship between those not united in doctrine. Even in 1945, the face of “Lutheranism in America” was a multi-faceted, spiritually schizophrenic mess! Today, it’s so bad that the “face” of outward Lutheranism is hopelessly disfigured and repulsive! The application of Romans 16:17-18 is NOT an “exegetical question”!
Section Eight: “We affirm our conviction that any two or more Christians may pray together to the Triune God in the name of Jesus Christ if the purpose for which they meet and pray is right according to the Word of God. This obviously includes meetings of groups called for the purpose of discussing doctrinal differences.”
1) This section could not have been “affirmed” if Romans 16:17-18 had not already been dismissed by the statementarians as not being applicable to fellowship between the orthodox and the heterodox (Section 5). Nevertheless other passages as well show that fellowship with the heterodox is contrary to the will of God and that joint prayer with those who err in doctrine and/or practice and refuse to heed correction is prohibited: Amos 3:3; Acts 2:42; I Corinthians 1:10; Ephesians 4:3ff., etc
2) Since when do “Lutherans” espouse the Jesuitical principle that “the end justifies the means”? If the purpose for which they meet is Godpleasing, why would they deliberately fly in the face of God’s Word by practicing fellowship before fellowship is established?
Section Nine: “We deplore the tendency to apply this non-Biblical term [“unionism”] to any and every contact between Christians of different denominations.”
While the term is “non-Biblical,” that is, it is not found written anywhere in the Bible, both the term and the concept are completely Scriptural. This characterization of the statementarians only seeks to detract from the importance of understanding the pernicious nature of sinful religious unionism. Moreover, by “any and every” the signers do not refer to equal yokes between the orthodox and heterodox; they want to exclude from the term “unionism” such things as joint prayer, joint mission work, joint youth activities, joint chaplaincy ministries in the military, joint hospital chaplaincies, etc., as well as indiscriminate exercise of fellowship between individuals.
Section Eleven: “We affirm our conviction that … fellowship is possible without complete agreement in details of doctrine and practice which have never been considered divisive in the Lutheran Church.”
It is simply NOT TRUE that there are “details of doctrine and practice which have never been considered divisive in the Lutheran Church.” A doctrine is no more and no less than a clear teaching of Scripture. Differences other than doctrinal differences are not divisive, as our Lutheran fathers have consistently held, namely, “human traditions, that is, rites and ceremonies instituted by men” (Augsburg Confession, VII); BUT concerning doctrine, “The Word of God shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel” (Smalcald Articles, Triglotta, p. 467, 15). In all such matters, God’s Word demands complete unity in doctrine and practice (I Corinthians 1:10). Note that the unscriptural character of A Statement laid down in Section Five reaches its ultimate and logical conclusion and purpose in Section Eleven.
What About the Cover-Up? —While it is true that President Behnken and the four Vice Presidents initially requested the signers NOT to send out A Statement until they had opportunity to discuss it with them, no action was taken when public offense was given in its immediate dissemination. Instead, the following chain of events took place which at the same time represented the President’s meager efforts at “damage control” and demonstrated his unwillingness to see it through to a Godpleasing resolution:
1) On December 10, 1945, President Behnken and the First Vice President of Synod met with the representative Continuation Committee of the signers and, in Behnken’s words, “voiced our disagreement with some of the points in A Statement as well as with the accompanying letter and insisted that these be corrected or withdrawn.” But nothing was done.
2) A subsequent meeting was arranged for February 14-15, 1946 in St. Louis, for the praesidium, the district presidents, and the signers. By the time this meeting was held, several hundred protests had been received by Behnken’s office from conferences and individuals all over the synod. At this meeting, the signers “explained” the statement and its accompanying letter; but two separate requests from the praesidium that they “withdraw” or at least “suspend” A Statement were declined. In direct contradiction of this fact, the Lutheran Witness reported on February 26: “The signers did not retract, nor were they asked to retract.” (p. 72). It was immediately obvious in what camp the Lutheran Witness had chosen to align itself. One positive step came out of the meeting: A committee of ten men chosen by the President was established to study A Statement in the light of God’s Word and to meet with a corresponding committee of the signers.
3) By April, 1946, the President’s Committee of Ten was established; but it soon became evident that it had no real status as far as reaching a final settlement was concerned. When the committee stated that it was essential for the President himself to define its status and the scope of its work and asked him for a meeting toward the end of that month, Behnken suggested that approval of such an arrangement be sought from the signers’ committee! The President’s Committee deemed such a procedure entirely out of order. In the meeting that was eventually held on April 27, it was agreed that the committee would be regarded only as “advisory to the President of Synod.”
4) The two committees of “Ten and Ten” met together three times August 13-16, September 23-25, and November 12-15, 1946). In the first meeting, the President’s Committee presented to its counterpart committee a detailed list of objections to A Statement and to its accompanying letter; and, since the signers had been soliciting additional signatures throughout the summer and had been distributing the booklet “Speaking the Truth in Love” in defense of the Statement, President Behnken stipulated that no further solicitation be made and that distribution of the booklet should cease. Nevertheless, just two days after the conclusion of the second meeting, the chairman of the signer’s group (who had been present at the first meeting as well) issued a letter dated September 28, urging his fellow signers to do just the opposite and adding: “It seems as though it should be an easy matter to secure additional signers.” When at the meeting of November 12-15 the signers’ committee was called to account for these breaches which were agitating against a proper Godpleasing settlement, the signers’ committee gave no assurances of cooperation or compliance.
5) Following the November meeting and in view of mounting apprehension in Synod about the end result of its efforts, the President’s Committee decided that it had to make an immediate summary report to the President on negotiations to date and to request that the report be shared with Synod’s clergy for their assurance.
6) When, however, the final draft of the committee’s report was presented to President Behnken, he suggested a scenario of “writing finis to A Statement” —putting the whole matter to rest— by getting the signers simply to agree to the following: a) The Continuation Committee of the signers would cease to function; b) there would be no further propagandizing for A Statement; c) the “Statementarians” as a group would dissolve; d) the issues involved would be studied further at “conferences;” e) there would be no further solicitation of adherents; f) “Speaking the Truth in Love” would no longer be circulated; and g) the President would offer to local pastoral conferences “materials” for discussion of the issues raised by A Statement. The President’s Committee thereupon unanimously informed Dr. Behnken that his proposal was unsatisfactory because it did not provide for retraction of the defamations in the accompanying letter and did not mark as false nor require the retraction of any of the sections in A Statement. After the praesidium had privately considered these objections, the President stated regarding future procedure: “It is evident that finis cannot be offered to the church.” Although this statement was defective because of what was not said, namely, what exactly Behnken intended to do to bring a proper Godpleasing finis to this controversy, the President’s committee hoped, as late as the end of December, that he would heed its objections and not proceed with his compromising proposal. It still trusted that he would present its report to the Synod, as it had requested him to do, and then that he would act accordingly —Scripturally, forthrightly, honestly, and uncompromisingly in the best tradition of his predecessors in the office of Synodical President.
What About the Conclusion? —The subsequent action of Dr. Behnken, in direct violation of his assurances to his own advisory committee, has been variously characterized as a betrayal, a sell-out, a back-door escape, a pact with the devil, and the product of the stereotyped “smoke-filled room” of big-time politicians. On January 11, 1947, the President and the First Vice President arranged a brief meeting with the chairman and secretary of the President’s Committee simply to inform them after the fact that the praesidium had met five days before, January 6, in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, with the committee of the signers and with the St. Louis seminary professors allied with them —but without any of the President’s own committee present— and had reached An Agreement to settle the controversy. In effect, however, it only disposed of the controversy without settling it. That Agreement was a travesty —an artful compromise worthy of Melanchthon and a textbook example of the heterodoxy which had taken hold of the Missouri Synod at the highest level of its leadership! The Agreement stated in part:
“An earnest evaluation of the discussions involved in ‘A Statement’ has demonstrated that we are agreed on many of its assertions, even though agreement has not been reached on some of the specific questions raised. … Nothing has developed, however, which is divisive of church fellowship. …
“It has therefore been agreed in a meeting of the Praesidium and of the representatives of the Signers that in the interest of peace and harmony in our midst and for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God at large ‘A Statement’ and ‘The Accompanying Letter’ be withdrawn as a basis of discussion so that the issues involved may be studied objectively on the basis of theses prepared under the auspices of the President of Synod.
“The withdrawal of ‘A Statement’ as a basis of discussion shall not be interpreted as a retraction… .”
In spite of Dr. Behnken’s promise that the issues involved would be studied further in the light of God’s Word and that further “theses” would be written to clarify matters, subsequent meetings and studies were nothing but a sham! Behnken steadfastly refused to formulate antithetical statements which would specifically reject the wording of A Statement or would state unequivocally that A Statement expressed false doctrine. His attempt at developing “guidelines” for the clergy’s eventual further study became transparently lopsided when the Springfield seminary’s faculty found the St. Louis seminary’s faculty “opinion” on Romans 16:17-18 unacceptable, and yet the St. Louis opinion was published by Concordia Publishing House as official for use in dogmatics courses in the St. Louis seminary.
Moreover, at the 1947 Convention, many overtures and memorials to the Synod regarding A Statement were not published. Other attempts to address the issue were killed by parliamentary maneuvering on the floor. And yet, in spite of such obstacles, the Synod went “on record” as reaffirming the Brief Statement and as giving its “definite support” to Memorial 607 which clearly defined the doctrines in controversy and actually rejected the errors contained in A Statement. Nevertheless failure on the part of the synod’s officials to take proper and effective disciplinary action against erring members has been repeatedly excused on the grounds that, because of the Agreement, A Statement “no longer exists.” Nonsense! Several years after the Agreement, signers were still defending A Statement and their subscription to it. “Speaking the Truth in Love” was still being distributed. And the “proof of the pudding” lay (and still lies) in the practice of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, in the official publications and documents of the synod, in the residual effects of the Agreement seen in subsequent controversies (including that which precipitated our separation from that body when it adopted the Common Confession three years later), and in the lack of doctrinal discipline still today in a church body whose slide into heterodoxy began ironically shortly after its adoption of the Brief Statement in 1932 and was all but set in concrete just twenty-five years later! After now almost fifty years of retrospective consideration of all that has gone over the dam since we left the Missouri Synod in 1951, we thank God for His gracious deliverance of His people from “Egypt” and for His continuing mercy in sparing us from the lure of its “fleshpots”. We have seen what malnutrition has resulted in those who sold their birthright of orthodoxy for a mess of “Egyptian pottage” and in those who, having once left “Egypt” in obedience to God’s Word, returned to their spiritual detriment! And we wonder what child of God, having once tasted the sweet Manna of His unadulterated Word and having been raised on a diet of pure doctrine and faithful practice, would knowingly return to a spiritual garbage can to forage upon the maggots of heterodoxy?? “From this preserve us, Heavenly Father!”
For further reading on this Web Site see:
- A Short History of the Orthodox Lutheran Conference
- A Popular History of the Concordia Lutheran Conference (through 1980)
- Our Constitution
For further information, the following materials are available from the Concordia Lutheran Conference Archives:
– The text of A Statement with the names of the original signers…………………………………………………….. $ 0.75
– The accompanying cover letter sent out over A Statement……………………………………………………….. $ 0.50
– “A Former U.L.C.A. Pastor Looks at the Agreement” by Wallace H. McLaughlin (undated)…………………… $ 1.00
– “The Statement Controversy Up to Date” (1949) by W. H. McLaughlin and H. D. Mensing………………………. $ 1.00
– “Do You Know?” —an informational booklet of documentation on the A Statement controversy, originally published in 1950 by the Chicago Study Club……. $ 1.50
Order these from: Scriptural Publications
17151 South Central Avenue
Oak Forest, IL 60452-4913