Looking Back Seventy Years in Our History to the Missouri Synod’s Adoption of the Common Confession in 1950. CL Jul – Aug 2020

 “… that the generation to come might know…” —Psalm 78:6

With this article, we want to remind our readers, most of whom were not yet alive when the events took place which caused us to separate from the Missouri Synod [LCMS], that it was the action of the Synod itself (or in some cases the protracted inaction of the Synod) that caused the separation, and that we were not and are not a bunch of fanatic “separatists.” It is vitally important that all of us remember what took place in 1950, and that the documents (A Statement of 1945 and the Common Confession of 1950) are still a matter of record as the first time the once orthodox Missouri Synod (Brief Statement of 1932) actually officially adopted (or permitted to stand unretracted in the case of A Statement) false doctrine in its midst and became a heterodox church body. Inasmuch as it refused to heed (and in some cases even to hear) Christian admonition, as our fathers “marked” the errors and the errorists, we were compelled by Scripture to “avoid” it (Romans 16:17 and Titus 3:10) and to “come out from among them and [to] be separate” (II Corinthians 6:17) from them.

Given the climate of religious skepticism, theological liberalism and doctrinal indifferentism that characterized the latter half of the Twentieth Century and permeated even 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 five little congregations located in only three states, we are still here after a seventy-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 former members who long ago “went out from us” (I John 2:19) and returned to the “flesh-pots [of Egypt]” (Exodus 16:3), looking for a more palatable diet, and actually convinced themselves that spiritual garbage tastes good (Luke 15:16)! 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 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 (I Corinthians 2:5), whose spiritual food is like chaff compared to wheat (Jeremiah 23:28), 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 itching ears (II Timothy 4:3) is a recipe for spiritual disaster!

We of the Concordia Lutheran Conference, on the other hand, have now for almost seventy years enjoyed the singular gracious blessings of our Lord and God for Jesus’ our Savior’s sake, whereof we are glad (Psalm 126:3); 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” (II Peter 3:18). This precious heritage of grace is not of our own making, as though we (and our founding fathers) deserved to be so blessed; “for we daily sin much and indeed deserve nothing but punishment” (Luther); 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 once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) and is able to keep us therein even unto the end (II Timothy 1:12).

As we contemplate our blessings over the past seventy years, it behooves us to remind particularly our younger members of 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). Therefore every twenty years or so, we find it meet and right to go back in contemporary church history to 1950 and to 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—seventy years ago—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; cf. II Corinthians 6:17-18).

It was not the fathers’ desire from the outset to leave the Missouri Synod and to form another church body (as was the cavil spread about them in those days). 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 at the time would be more zealous in guarding the confessional position of the Synod in doctrine and practice by rooting out error and by disciplining errorists (“doctrinal discipline” – cf. Brief Statement of 1932, §29). When this outcome was thwarted by the synodical hierarchy, which viewed their Godpleasing efforts with suspicion and even disdain, when they were bullied, booed, 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 John W. Behnken’s deliberate and flagrant refusal to exercise doctrinal discipline by his Agreement (1947) with the errorists was the “handwriting on the wall” (cf. 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 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! This was a shocking betrayal of the orthodox men who had encouraged Behnken (and who expected Behnken) to “do the right thing.”

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 (hopefully) 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 An 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 continued 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, the Synod’s official organ, 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! The “withdrawn” document was still doing a lot of talking! Surprise?

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. —Roughly THIRTY formal protests!

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!

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 (Jeremiah 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).-

At its 1950 convention in Milwaukee, seventy years ago this past June, the Synod’s “unionistic character” which, up to that time, had been “evinced chiefly by the unretracted A Statement” (Preamble, CONSTITUTION of the Concordia Lutheran Conference), that is, by its consistent and deliberate omission of doctrinal discipline, was exacerbated or made much worse by the commission of a sin, grievous on the part of any individual Christian, and particularly offensive on the part of a church body to whose leadership its member congregations look for sound doctrine and practice. The Missouri Synod officially ADOPTED a document which it represented to its members as completely Scriptural and thoroughly orthodox, but which in reality was unscriptural and compromising in its language and cunningly deceptive as to its purpose, a document that echoed in its intent and even in its words the unretracted A Statement. This document was the so-called Common Confession of Faith between The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the American Lutheran Church.

A desire to effect truly Godpleasing pulpit and altar fellowship with the American Lutheran Church on the basis of real unity had been a priority item in the Missouri Synod for many years, and it had become a source of confusion and controversy when proponents showed themselves willing to “cut corners” in order to arrive at mutually-suitable compromises in doctrine and practice, that is, in matters which permit of NO compromise and NO accommodation. Thus, for example, the Brief Statement of 1932 was born some eighteen years earlier in order to set the record straight, as it were, on matters of doctrine and practice which were in dispute between the two bodies, and with regard to which the orthodox “fathers” of the Missouri Synod, led by Dr. Francis Pieper, would not bend.

There were always those, however, who saw a large “pan-Lutheran” federation as a “greater good” than even true orthodoxy (though they never admitted it); and the all-too-evident transparency of this hidden agenda in “brethren” was troubling to men like Dr. Pieper and other guardians of the Synod’s doctrine and practice. Nevertheless they were “out there,” and some, as it turned out, were “in” as well —in the hierarchy of official circles within the Synod, on the faculty of the seminary at St. Louis in particular, and at other sundry posts of prestige. It was these men who were ill-advisedly appointed to or elected to committees on doctrine and practice and, in the case of the present discussion, to the Committee on Doctrinal Unity of the Missouri Synod. This committee had been charged with setting up and holding meetings with counterparts in the American Lutheran Church, with the end in view of crafting a mutual confession that would be acceptable to both church bodies, even though their respective positions in the controverted doctrines were “miles apart” in some cases (Cf. Amos 3:3).

It must be remembered that the purpose of the Common Confession was intended from the outset to be a basis for establishing fellowship between the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, which subscribed to the demonstrably orthodox position of the Brief Statement of 1932, and the American Lutheran Church, a church body with a demonstrably false position both in doctrine and in practice. —The American Lutheran Church, at its 1948 convention, resolved “…that we continue a Committee on Fellowship…to negotiate with a Committee on Doctrinal Unity of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, toward the establishment of pulpit and altar fellowship or fellowship commensurate with the existing degree of unity….” NOTE that there was NO “existing degree of unity!!” UNITY is being “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10). There is no such thing as a “degree” of unity!! Therein lay the problem! Nevertheless, the A. L. C. resolved that, “in the interest of prompter and more effective work,” a subcommittee consisting of Dr. Edward C. Fendt and Dr. Bernard J. Holm “work on a single statement of the faith of the church” with the Missouri Synod committee. —The Missouri Synod made this same agenda evident in 1947, resolving “…that Synod encourage its Committee on Doctrinal Unity to continue discussion on a soundly Scriptural basis, using the Brief Statement and such other documents as are already in existence OR AS IT MAY BE NECESSARY TO FORMULATE [our emphasis]; and that Synod’s Committee on Doctrinal Unity be instructed to make every effort to arrive ultimately at ONE DOCUMENT [our emphasis) which is Scriptural, clear, concise, and unequivocal.” Representing the Missouri Synod in this effort were Dr. John H. C. Fritz and Pastor W. H. Jurgen. The task was “simple”: Make something out of nothing! The result was bound to be a sham!!

Note, therefore, that, contrary to the specific direction of the Synod’s 1947 Convention, the members of its Committee on Doctrinal Unity “negotiated” and “crafted” a document that was UNscriptural, UNclear, IMprecise- and EQUIVOCAL, namely, the Common Confession of Faith, and presented it for adoption to the 1950 Convention of the Missouri Synod in Milwaukee. In its recommendation to the convention, the Committee on Doctrinal Unity grossly MISREPRESENTED that document as fulfilling the Scriptural and confessional requirements of the Synod. Nevertheless, both in printed memorials and in earnest warnings made from the floor of the convention, its delegates were amply informed of this misrepresentation by orthodox pastors and laymen — sadly few in number — and were urged to reject the Common Confession for the following reasons:

1. The Common Confession was not a faithful and correct presentation of what God’s Word teaches on a number of doctrines treated in it (including the doctrines of Inspiration, of Justification, of Conversion, of Election, of the Church, of the Antichrist, and of the Last Things).

2. The Common Confession failed to exclude and reject false doctrines which had been for years and still were officially being taught in the American Lutheran Church and thus failed to meet the requirements of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions for union on the basis of true unity.

3. It was adopted in violation of Christian consciences bound in the Word of God (I Corinthians 1:10; II Corinthians 10:5) since protests of brethren made both before and during the convention were ignored, despised, and even ruled out of order!

4. It was adopted by majority vote instead of unanimously (See Lutheran Witness, July 25, 1950, p. 228). Thus it was adopted in violation of Scripture’s requirement of unanimity (I Corinthians 1:10) and in violation of the Missouri Synod’s own constitution, Article VIII, C, to wit: “[At synodical meetings] all matters of doctrine and of conscience shall be decided only by the Word of God. All other matters shall be decided by a majority vote.”

Indeed the 1950 Convention resolved by majority vote, notwithstanding St. Paul’s injunction in I Corinthians 1:10 that Christians “all speak the same thing, that there be no divisions among [them], but that [they] be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment,”

“…that we accept the ‘Common Confession’ as a statement of these doctrines in harmony with Scriptures [our emphasis];”

“…that, if the American Lutheran Church, in convention assembled accepts it, the ‘Common Confession’ shall be recognized as a statement of agreement on these doctrines between us and the American Lutheran Church…” [our emphasis];

“…that additional statements, originating in the same manner as the present ‘Common Confession,’ may be submitted [for clarification or expansion]….” — [again our emphasis of these words from the preceding Whereas].

(Cited from the Proceedings of the Forty-first Regular Convention of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod)

If indeed the Common Confession had been “in harmony with Scripture,” why would it need “clarification or expansion” (these words taken from the second whereas of an additional resolution)?? This proviso was added as a kind of “sop” to concerned delegates to make it appear as though the adopted version were still open for correction. The addition was therefore transparently deceptive and meaningless!

The unthinkable had happened! The Missouri Synod of C. F. W. Walther, August Graebner, Franz Pieper, Ludwig Fuerbringer, Theodore Engelder and other stalwart defenders of the truth and watchmen on Zion’s walls had sold its birthright of orthodoxy, of purity of doctrine, and of faithful Scriptural practice! It had forsaken both the standard and spirit of the Brief Statement in order to effect a sham fellowship with a patently heterodox church body, and it did so deliberately, deceptively, and wantonly! It’s slide into the abyss of heterodoxy was now complete! It had hit-bottom! It had established heterodoxy as its official stance, for the record! It no longer merely tolerated error (which in itself is a mark of heterodoxy), but it sanctioned and embraced error by laying its foundation upon a false confessional platform; and it left those who, by God’s grace, were able to recognize, yea, to “mark” its unionistic character, those who desired still to continue in their Savior’s Word and to be His disciples indeed, no legitimate choice but to leave it! (Romans 16:17). —But what would they do in the last analysis? The weeks and months to follow the convention would tell the tale, and the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed by their action or inaction!!

Thus in the summer of 1950, exactly seventy years ago, the Common Confession was officially adopted by majority vote of the delegates to the Milwaukee convention over the protests of many pastors, laymen and congregations who openly opposed it, publicly spoke against it, and had memorialized the Synod to reject it. For the first time in its long history of orthodoxy, the Missouri Synod officially espoused false doctrine and practice, renounced the need for unanimity in such matters, passed a union document of compromise deliberately worded in terms sufficiently vague to satisfy the heterodox American Lutheran Church, and systematically opposed any and all efforts to correct her. This same, now firmly established, pattern of heterodoxy continues to this day —seven decades later— with the absence of doctrinal discipline in her midst, the toleration of error side-by-side with the truth, union without unity, variance of doctrine and practice from church to church, pastor to pastor, and professor to professor, and the blatant persecution of those who still occasionally dare to admonish her.

—D. T. M.

(Adapted and updated from the author’s convention essay in 2000.)