Historical Essay – “The Official Establishment of Heterodoxy in the Missouri Synod, 1950” – Part I
From the July / August 2000 issue of The Concordia Lutheran.
delivered to the
Forty-Ninth Annual Convention
The Rev. David T. Mensing, Pastor
Oak Forest, Illinois
“The Official Establishment of Heterodoxy
in the Missouri Synod, 1950”
Given the climate of religious skepticism, theological liberalism and doctrinal indifferentism that characterized the latter half of the Twentieth Century and permeated even the traditionally conservative bastions of Lutheranism, it is without doubt a miracle of God’s grace that our beloved Concordia Lutheran Conference survived in such a hostile environment and that it even exists today. For, although we are admittedly a small church body by anyone’s standards, yea, statistically insignificant with our seven little congregations spread out over seven different states, we are still here after a fifty-year-long survival trek through the ecclesiastical wasteland round about us! Our existence surprises those who never heard of us, irritates those who wish they hadn’t, disgusts those who mock our unwavering stand upon the truth of God’s Word, and frustrates those who long ago “went out from us” and returned to the “flesh-pots of Egypt,” looking for a more palatable diet, and actually convinced themselves that spiritual garbage tastes good! Yet, in a sad twist of irony, it has been the spiritually malnourished church bodies that seem to have grown by leaps and bounds and “outperformed” us in all the categories viewed by the world as barometers of viability and vitality: growth in numbers, prestige, and power, a booming financial outlook, and (don’t forget) a substantial “market share” as measured by reputation and popularity among similar denominations. Such prosperity might bother us Christians, as “the prosperity of the wicked” plagued Asaph (Psalm 73), were it not for the transparency of all those factors and of the glitz that accompanies them, and the sobering fact that not one of them is regarded by Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church, as being of significance to Him. Like Asaph, we need to understand “their end” whose faith stands in the wisdom of men rather than in the power of God, whose spiritual food is like chaff compared to wheat, whose growth is tabulated in shallow numbers rather than in depth of faith, and whose intolerance of sound doctrine and eagerness for “teachers who will tickle their ear” is a recipe for spiritual disaster!
We of the Concordia Lutheran Conference, on the other hand, have now for almost fifty years enjoyed the singular gracious blessings of our Lord and God for Jesus’ our Savior’s sake, whereof we are glad; and we have survived, nay, we have flourished in this spiritual wasteland like palm trees in a desert oasis, our sin-parched throats quenched by the well of living water springing up unto everlasting life, our souls nurtured by the Manna of His precious Word, our treasure reckoned as purity of doctrine and faithful pastors at whose feet we have continued to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” This our precious heritage of grace is not of our own doing, as though we (and our founding fathers) deserved to be so blessed; “for we daily sin much and indeed deserve nothing but punishment;” but we gratefully ascribe all glory to God for having preserved unto us poor unworthy sinners in their purity His saving Word and the sacred ordinances of His House as the means whereby He has strengthened us in the one true and saving faith and promises to keep us therein even unto the end.
As our Golden Anniversary celebration is only a year away, it behooves us to focus particularly our younger members upon the reasons for our existence as a church body, “that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children” (Psalm 78:6). It is, therefore, meet and right that we go back in contemporary church history to 1950 and examine the liberalizing influences, the lax attitudes, the crass politics, and the scandalous events that converged in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in June of that infamous year—fifty years ago to this very day—which caused the “fathers” of our beloved Conference to “mark” the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod as a heterodox church body and made it essential for them, in obedience to the Word of God, to “avoid” it, and to go it on their own (Romans 16:17).
As we noted in our essay last year, it was not the fathers’ desire from the outset to leave the Missouri Synod and to form another church body. On the contrary, it was their fervent hope and prayer, as it was Luther’s in the early days of the Reformation, that their earnest protests would be heeded and that their brethren would be more zealous in guarding the confessional position of the Synod in doctrine and practice by rooting out error and by disciplining errorists. When this outcome was thwarted by the synodical hierarchy, which viewed their Godpleasing efforts with suspicion and even disdain, when they were bullied and shouted down on the floor of conventions and pastoral conferences, and when they were threatened by synodical officials with physical consequences because of their spiritual endeavors and were dealt with in a most unbrotherly manner in what can only be described as “goon squad” tactics, our faithful fathers knew that the end was near. The synod had embarked upon a precipitous slide into heterodoxy when it failed to demand that A Statement (1945), its accompanying letter, and the cunning propaganda piece written in defense of it (“Speaking the Truth in Love”) be not only “withdrawn” but also “retracted” as false and pernicious doctrine. President Behnken’s deliberate and flagrant refusal to exercise doctrinal discipline (The Agreement) was the “handwriting on the wall” (Daniel 5:25) that all should have recognized for the telling symptom of creeping heterodoxy that it was; but the status quo of inaction on the part of the synodical president continued for years, so that the matter still was not resolved at the time of the 1950 convention in Milwaukee. Moreover, a NEW DOCUMENT was about to be introduced to the synod, another attempt at unscriptural compromise with the American Lutheran Church, a document which drew on A Statement as a kind of springboard. And when eventually that “Common Confession of Faith” was ADOPTED by the synod in convention assembled—in June of 1950—the gradual slide into creeping heterodoxy had become a virtual plummet into established heterodoxy, the formal adoption of false doctrine despite fervent pleas and urgent warnings to the contrary.
As just noted, inaction on the part of President Behnken with regard to A Statement was still a major issue in the Missouri Synod in 1950. The Agreement which he had unilaterally reached with the principal signers and their supporters in January of 1947 simply stated that A Statement had been “withdrawn as a basis of discussion.” Then an additional paragraph was added to explain exactly what was meant by the so-called “withdrawal.” To satisfy the Statementarians’ concern that this could be regarded as a “retraction” under pressure from the Synodical President, Behnken added the lead sentence which stated: “The withdrawal of A Statement as a basis of discussion shall not be interpreted as a retraction….” And immediately thereafter, to satisfy those who were expected to cry “Foul!” and “Whitewash!”, Behnken continued: “…nor shall it mean that the issues involved shall now be glossed over or ignored.” What then was the President’s plan whereby he could continue to sit on both sides of the fence? “They shall become the topics of special study and prayerful consideration which will lead us, with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, to an ever more consecrated adherence to the Word and will of God.” And in the meantime?? The Agreement states simply: “Nothing has developed, however, which is divisive of church fellowship.” —A firestorm had roared through the Synod, but nothing and no one was burned! A grisly murder had been committed, but no one was dead! A child had been conceived out of wedlock, but the woman’s virginity was still intact!
Was the synod satisfied with the President’s Agreement? Hardly! Dr. E. W. A. Koehler wrote: “It is simply impossible to discuss the real issue raised by A Statement without making A Statement and its letter the basis of discussion. Does anyone honestly think that this can be done??” The tactic of “withdrawing” A Statement “as a basis of discussion” effectively stifled every effort even to talk about it! The next year, in 1947, eighteen congregations and several regional pastoral conferences submitted memorials of protest to the Centennial Convention of the Missouri Synod; but the President refused to publish them —which made it impossible for the delegates even to evaluate them. The convention was also prevented from defining its position regarding the errors in A Statement because the President ruled “out of order” a resolution containing five doctrinal statements which presented the Scriptural position in opposition to A Statement’s position. Finally the concerned delegates passed a resolution reaffirming the Brief Statement of 1932, sharply defining the doctrines in controversy, and rejecting the errors in A Statement. It was felt that the Synod at least took a “right stand” and sent a message to the officials in its leadership that it stood behind them with back-up support when they exercised doctrinal discipline. Did President Behnken thereupon institute appropriate disciplinary procedures against the signers of A Statement and their supporters? No. And his reason?? Because of The Agreement, A Statement no longer really exists. Can a president discipline a member for signing a non-existent document?? —More “smoke-and-mirrors”! Nothing is done! And, in the meantime, the signers continue to make propaganda for their cause: Prof. W. G. Polack, a Statementarian, appeared at a laymen’s meeting in Indianapolis to discuss the background of A Statement. On the floor of the 1947 Convention, Prof. Theodore Graebner declared that he was a signer and “stands by every word of it.” In December, 1948, copies of “Speaking the Truth in Love” were sold on the campus of the St. Louis Seminary. In 1949, the signers were still drumming up supporters —openly and boldly— and the Lutheran Witness began regularly to lend support to A Statement’s errors in article after article by printing them without disapproving comment. Moreover, in essays, articles, and speeches, Statementarians regularly offered opinions and established doctrinal positions fully in keeping with the errors they had signed onto four years earlier. Nothing had changed!
In 1950, A Statement was still a “hot topic” of discussion, in spite of Behnken’s “withdrawal” of it from discussion. Pastors and congregations were clearly dissatisfied with his inaction on clear-cut aberrations from the doctrine of God’s Word and his express intention to continue indefinitely to submit “study papers” to them. The Book of Reports and Memorials, as well as the Official Proceedings of the Milwaukee convention, contain no fewer than eleven urgently-worded printed Memorials petitioning the Synod officially to reject A Statement and to insist that it be retracted. In addition, there were eighteen memorials expressing dissatisfaction with the lack of doctrinal discipline in Synod, two protesting the appointment of Dr. E. J. Friedrich (the driving force behind A Statement) to the 4th Vice Presidency of Synod, three asking that Synod recognize that, according to Scripture, there is no essential difference between joint prayer and prayer fellowship (this issue having been prompted by A Statement and by a pamphlet entitled Prayer Fellowship, authored by Statementarian Theodore Graebner), four memorials demanding that the seminary faculty in St. Louis be corrected for its unscriptural “opinion” that engagement was NOT tantamount to Holy Marriage, and two specifically targeting error published in the Lutheran Witness, the official organ of the Synod.
What was done by the Missouri Synod at its 1950 convention to see to it that false doctrine “actually taught in its pulpits, in its theological seminaries, and in its publications,” as well as “the casual intrusion of errors” was “combated and eventually removed by means of doctrinal discipline” (Brief Statement, 29)? In other words, what was done to make sure that the Synod did not “forfeit its orthodox character” by failing to take action? In a word, nothing!
—Specifically with regard to A Statement, all the memorials were referred to Committee 3, which offered a resolution recognizing the President’s faithful endeavors to carry out the 1947 Convention’s action of submitting the entire matter to “study.” It commended him for his effort and “encouraged” him “to use reactions received in connection with his essays for the furtherance of agreement on the questions raised.” “…and be it further Resolved, that specific accusations in the memorials on ‘A Statement’ be referred to the proper channels of Synod.” The resolution was adopted by a majority of the delegates, and the matter was simply buried!
—Regarding doctrinal discipline: “Resolved to refer the charges to Synod’s regularly-set-up channels for action,” of which there was none.
—Regarding prayer fellowship: “Resolved that this question be held in abeyance until the treatise on “Prayer Fellowship” has been published; and be it furthermore Resolved that if further clarity is needed on the question, it shall be referred to the Advisory Committee on Doctrine and Practice.” What action was taken by the adoption of this resolution? None.
—Regarding the St. Louis Seminary faculty’s “opinion” on engagement: One resolution simply quoted Catechism Question 61 (which, of course, did not directly address the “spin” that the St. Louis faculty put on the words “entered into” in the answer to that question); and a second resolution “Resolved that we request the two faculties [in St. Louis and Springfield—which held opposing views on this matter] to clarify the opinions expressed in connection with the question and that with the approval of the Praesidium of Synod the report of the faculties be submitted to our pastors and congregations.” The resolution to commit for further study was adopted. The Synod took no action.
—Regarding protests against the appointment of a Statementarian as Fourth Vice President: The convention resolved that, since the whole A Statement matter was being “studied” and was therefore on hold, Dr. Friedrich’s name was “left on the list [of candidates] by the 1947 convention without protest; and WHEREAS the convention thereby and therewith declared him to be their candidate for the office of Vice-President; and WHEREAS the method of procedure prescribed in the By-Laws 2.37 was followed in the appointment of a Fourth Vice-President; therefore be it Resolved that we uphold the action taken by the President in the appointment of the Fourth Vice-President.” Action taken to guard the confessional position of the Synod by removing an errorist from its leadership? None.
Objections from the floor to the above tyrannical procedures (which effectively stifled all efforts of congregations and their pastors to “combat” and “eventually remove” error and errorists) were ruled “out of order” by the chair; and convention business moved right along through its agenda. By these deliberate, calculated moves, the Synod showed clearly that the “intrusions of error” into its midst were no longer “casual,” that it resisted and rejected all efforts to “combat” them, and that it recognized no urgency whatsoever in having them “removed.” [The word “eventually” in the Brief Statement was commonly referred to by the liberal element in Synod as a wide-open door justifying their perpetual stall tactics. Thus they continued to proceed in this obstructionistic manner, all the while claiming to adhere to the Brief Statement as their “sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15).]
By its failure to act, particularly since that failure had been deliberately orchestrated to frustrate the injunctions of God’s Word that error be removed and that errorists be admonished and, if no fruit is evident, be rejected (Jer. 23:28; John 8:31-32; Matthew 7:15; Romans 16:17; Titus 1:9, 13; 3:10; etc.), the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod officially established heterodoxy in its midst as a consistent pattern and essential characteristic of its position in doctrine and practice, “in spite of much patient admonition to the contrary on the part of many pastors and congregations in its midst.” (Preamble, CONSTITUTION of the Concordia Lutheran Conference).
(NOTE: Part II of this essay will appear in the September 2000 issue of The Concordia Lutheran.)
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