The two largest Lutheran churches in America have now broken up: the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) in the 1960s and 1970s after a brutal conflict between insurgent conservatives and complacent liberals, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) in the last few years, as the predictable result of a flawed ecclesial foundation. While both stories are instructive in their own right, the striking thing about them is that they are compellingly connected. The refugees from the first conflict were instrumental in shaping the flawed foundation of the second. Further, those refugees from the LCMS aided those in the ELCA who were pushing it toward liberal Protestantism. So we are left with one Lutheran communion mired in unending conflict over biblical interpretation, and another merged fully into a declining, desiccated Protestant mainline.
The story of the old conflict, told well in James Burkee’s new book Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod, is a dark tale about something that really did not have to happen. It is the story of the overthrow of a moderate but unwary president, Oliver Harms, and his associates by a highly organized and mean-spirited group of conservative (reactionary is probably a better word) insurgents. They drew on the unease and suspicion sown over many years by a renegade pastor, Herman Otten, who, ever resentful at being refused certification for ordination, conducted a relentless vilification of LCMS leaders and professors with his newspaper Lutheran News, which later became Christian News.
In some ways the takeover of headquarters was merely an instrument for getting at the leadership and faculty of Concordia Seminary at St. Louis, which the insurgents rightly suspected of moving beyond its conservative constituency in biblical interpretation, theology, and cultural and political attitudes. Charges were brought in the early 1970s against the seminary’s president, John Tietjen, and he and the faculty adamantly refused to accept any of the face-saving deals offered by the insurgents. As the noose on them tightened, they staged an exodus in 1973 from the campus of the seminary and formed the Seminary in Exile (Seminex). The church around them fractured, but few congregations—only around 270 of some 6000—followed them out of the Missouri Synod into the new Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC).
As Burkee describes it, the insurgent war on the liberals (they called themselves moderates) was unrelenting, fierce, and remorseless. Participants in the current conflict in the ELCA are playing by the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules compared to the bare-knuckle brutality of Missouri’s Great Unhappiness. Burkee demonstrates that conservatives in the LCMS were deeply affected and motivated by the political and cultural upheaval of the sixties. They seemed driven as much by conservative political and cultural commitments as by theological concerns, though they were sorely provoked by the rambunctious Richard John Neuhaus and a bevy of fellow rebels who in many cases fused their religious commitments with their left-wing politics.
But a concern for biblical and theological liberalism did underlay the simmering discontent many Missourians had for years with Concordia Seminary. Some of the faculty indeed promoted gospel reductionism (the teaching that justification is the only doctrine that finally matters) as well as an understanding of Scripture strongly influenced by historical-critical assumptions.
On the other hand, the liberals were both arrogant and strategically inept. They were arrogant in the sense that they thought they could get away with their biblical, theological, and cultural liberalism without offending a much more conservative constituency and in the sense that their leaders would not give an inch before the charges of the conservatives. At one poignant moment, the leader of the insurgents, J. A. O. Preus, would have stopped the attacks if Tiejten would have made a small apology for the faculty’s errors. But that was not to be. The liberals were also strategically clueless, swept up in the romantic allure of exodus, when they might have better employed the gritty tactic of making Preus come after them one by one. After about three public trials—and the attendant blood spilled and momentum lost—the conservatives would likely have tired of continuing the attack.
The conflict ended more than three decades ago with a conservative victory, but it seems as if Missouri has been unable to rid itself of ongoing infighting. Heresy charges and trials simply for bringing up borderline issues—women teaching theology in Missouri universities, for example—persist. Added to such continuing strife is the “Brief Statement” of 1932 (a Missouri clarification of its stand on matters of biblical interpretation), reiterated in the mid-seventies, which seems to elevate quasi-fundamentalist and anti-evolutionary planks to confessional status and can be used to quash any attempt at biblical or theological creativity. Women’s ordination and closed communion also persist as divisive issues.
Neither the relatively small number of Missouri Synod churches that formed the AELC nor its seminary Seminex were strong enough to survive for long independently. The new church quickly joined the merger conversations in the 1980s between the American Lutheran Church (ALC) and the Lutheran Church in America (LCA). Thus, the liberal refugees from the Missouri Synod became key players in the formation of the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988. In addition to the Seminex faculty, the ex-Missourians provided several revisionist pastors and bishops, one of whom, Stephen Bouman, may be the ELCA’s next presiding bishop. Though they were in the minority, they brought a battle-hardened, coordinated contingent that saw no enemies to the left, only to the right. They had had enough of authoritarian conservatism and joined the liberals of the ALC and LCA to make sure that conservatism would never play a dominant role in the new ELCA.
Both the ALC and the LCA were already slipping toward liberal Protestantism before the new church was planned. The hermeneutic of suspicion was already being applied within those churches to the inherited tradition. The informal magisterium that had been carried by their leading theologians, which had kept the churches orthodox, was already in trouble by the time merger talk began.
Still the best source for this story of how the liberals prevailed in their attempt to make a “new” Lutheran church is The Anatomy of a Merger (1991), whose author, Edgar Trexler, was at the time editor of the LCA’s denominational magazine, The Lutheran, and in that role attended nearly every meeting of the groups that planned the ELCA. What was distinctively “new” in the new church was its commitment to “inclusiveness.” As one observer put it, inclusiveness was the “god term” of the proceedings, “the expression about which all other expressions are ranked as subordinate.”
The practical instrument of inclusiveness was the imposition of quotas for every committee, task force, assembly, and bureaucracy in the new church. Each of these had to be 60 percent lay, 40 percent clergy, 50 percent women, and 10 percent either people of color or people whose first language was other than English (although German, Hungarian, Slovak, and other languages spoken by ethnic Lutherans didn’t count). The veteran leaders of the ALC and LCA opposed the quotas, but the liberals had their way. Quotas over-represented interest groups—feminists, multiculturalists, black liberationists—and under-represented the traditional leaders from the merging churches, experienced white male pastors, and especially theologians.
The planners did not stop with imposing quotas. They planned a structure that insured that theologians and bishops, who were then almost exclusively white males, would have little real theological authority in the church, that evangelism would be a second- or third-order concern, that a quota-driven national assembly that was 60 percent laypeople would vote on church doctrine, that there would be no opportunity for synods and congregations to rescind those votes, and that a liberal central bureaucracy would have its own way over time.
The new ELCA was significantly defined by a coalition of sixties radicals, and in fact the shaping of the ELCA parallels the reform of the Democratic Party. Jesse Jackson and George McGovern and their followers, using a quota system, moved the Democratic Party to the left not only of the country but of its own membership. It took the Democratic Party twenty years to move enough to the center to begin to win presidential elections again. In democratic politics, however, the citizens can throw the rascals out. But such was not—and is not—possible in the ELCA. Once the new DNA of the ELCA was set, clergy and laity in the church could do little to challenge the bureaucracy. They could slow down its progress but not alter it or change the direction of their church.
The “march through the institutions” radiated from Chicago—the new headquarters of the ELCA—to many synods, agencies, colleges, and seminaries. The church’s seminaries, for example, took in professors from Seminex, which closed at the beginning of the merger talks. (It had lasted for less than ten years.) The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) took in eleven Seminex faculty, who then altered dramatically the character of the seminary. Much later, the LSTC faculty voted unanimously to support the revisionist sexuality policies that were proposed and accepted at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. (That Assembly approved the blessing and ordination of partnered homosexual couples as well as a social statement on sexuality that backed away from many classical Christian teachings on sexual ethics.) The LSTC was not the only seminary affected strongly by the refugees. Indeed, by my counting not one of the former Seminex faculty wound up on the side of the traditionalists in the run-up to the Churchwide Assembly of 2009.
Many faithful and competent orthodox pastors and laity have enriched the ELCA after their migration from the LCMS, but the question remains why those from Seminex and the AELC who have taken leadership positions in the seminaries, colleges, bureaucracies, and synods of the ELCA have bent toward the revisionist side. Was it because their former tormentors had been on the right and they could not, or would not, recognize any danger from the left? Or was it because they were, as the conservative insurgents of the LCMS had charged, liberals from the very beginning and have found a most hospitable place in the ELCA?
Whatever the case, from the beginnings of the ELCA that leadership of former Missourians has been instrumental in pushing the ELCA in the revisionist direction. They and the others who created the new church did all they needed to do to insure that liberal Protestantism was the ELCA’s destination.
While the battles within the LCMS and the ELCA did not change American Christianity much (Lutherans after all are a small and declining tradition, both absolutely and as a percentage of the population), they certainly changed American Lutheranism. The first battle blew apart what had been a strong church, which has never recovered its unity, vitality, or its place in American religious life, and provided an important impetus for the breakup of another.
And the breakups continue. Two new churches and at least one new seminary have emerged from the ELCA. Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) is a fairly loose association of about five hundred congregations with little central organization or direction. The North American Lutheran Church, founded only six months ago, expects its membership to reach more than two hundred churches by its first year anniversary. It possesses a much more traditional structure. Both are served by a new seminary—the Institute of Lutheran Theology—which offers mainly online courses taught by orthodox Lutheran professors. Both churches emphasize evangelism. Both churches also accept—after careful examination—students from other seminaries who want to join them as well as pastors who are leaving the ELCA.
Another association, not a church, is the Lutheran Coalition for Renewal (CORE). It provides a meeting ground for orthodox Lutherans who remain in the ELCA and the LCMS as well as for those who have migrated to the new churches. It provides a number of services for the new churches and holds an annual theological conference that attempts to provide a vision of Lutheranism at its best.
How this will all sift out is known only to God, but these dissenting Lutherans believe that it is important to provide an institutional home for the Lutheran insights that aim at reforming the church catholic. There is still plenty of need to remind Christendom of the radical nature of God’s grace in Christ; of the distinction between Law and Gospel as marking the two ways that God reigns in the world; of the perennial condition of the Christian in this life as both saint and sinner; and of the special vocation of the laity.
These Lutheran perspectives retain crucial importance as distinctive insights into the Great Tradition. They of course are not the whole and should not be taken for the whole. But they do provide flashes of illumination and insight for the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. That is justification enough for their preservation.
Robert Benne is director of the Center on Religion and Society at Roanoke College.